Any air passenger who has flown since 9/11 knows that airport security is strict, but passengers who are chosen for a full-body pat-down at security checkpoints experience more scrutiny than others. Transportation Security Administration officers administer pat-downs to passengers who need screening in addition to regular checks before they’re allowed to fly. While pat-down screenings can be inconvenient, they are an unavoidable part of modern air travel.
A pat-down is not a standard screening process for all air travelers. You may be asked to undergo a pat-down if an alarm is triggered when you go through the metal detector.
For example, if you forget to remove a metal belt or have a metal plate inside your body at the airport security checkpoint, you may be asked by a security officer to step aside for extra screening.
Some airports are now equipped with Advanced Imaging Technology, or AIT. These machines X-ray passengers through a large screen.
If you don’t wish to walk through the AIT machine, you can opt to be patted down instead.
If you’re chosen for an additional screening by a TSA agent, you’ll generally be led to a designated space near the main screening area away from your carry-on luggage. This station is usually in view of other travelers, but you do have the right to request a private room.
The screening will be performed by a security officer of your gender. For the first part of the screening procedure the officer will run a handheld metal-detecting body scanner over you, she will then run her hands across your body to feel for prohibited items such as weapons.
Officers will use the back of their hands to check sensitive areas. You must tell the officer if you have any medical devices, such as a pacemaker, before she begins the screening.
Once the officer is satisfied that you’re not carrying any contraband, she’ll let you continue to the gate.
According to the TSA, children may be subject to pat-downs as well. Screeners should make an additional effort to clear children for flight without resorting to this security screening, however. Officers are often willing to let children go through the metal detector or AIT multiple times to see if they can detect what is causing the alarm to go off before they administer a TSA pat-down.
If the pat-down is deemed necessary, officers will never separate a child from his parents and will administer a “modified” pat-down that is less invasive than the procedure used for adults.
Some air travelers have made national news because of complaints related to security measures. Parents have expressed dismay at their children being patted down, and other passengers have complained about the nature of the security procedure and racial profiling.
According to the "Washington Post," passengers have described pat-downs as “invasive” and “intrusive” and reported feeling like they were being groped.
While it is a passenger’s right to refuse to be patted down, TSA officers won’t allow you to fly if you don’t comply with all the agency's security checks.