CHICAGO - Some air travelers over the age of 75 will soon get a break at airport security checkpoints under a test program announced Wednesday that could allow them to keep their shoes and light jackets on and skip pat-downs.
The new guidelines from the Transportation Security Administration, which take effect Monday at four U.S. airports, are part of an effort to move away from its one-size-fits-all security procedures and speed lower-risk passengers through while focusing on those who may need more scrutiny. Similar changes were made last fall for travelers 12 and younger.
Since the 9/11 terror attacks that led to tighter security, air travelers have criticized what they say is a lack of common sense in screening all passengers the same way, including young children and the elderly. That criticism grew louder in 2010 when the government began using a more invasive pat-down that involves screeners feeling a traveler's genital and breast areas through their clothing.
"By moving away from a one-size-fits-all approach to security and applying some intelligence-driven and risk-based security models, TSA is looking at how this works for passengers," said agency spokesman Jim Fotenos.
The change in guidelines will be introduced at a limited number of security lanes at Chicago's O'Hare International, Denver International, Orlando International and Portland International. Those airports were chosen because they have a higher percentage of travelers 75 and older, Fotenos said. He said the rules will be relaxed indefinitely at the four airports with the intention of expanding elsewhere if it is a success.
Two passengers in their 80s traveling separately through New York's Kennedy Airport in November complained that they were effectively strip-searched. One was made to remove a back brace so it could be X-rayed. The other said she was humiliated when two female screeners made her lower her sweat pants so they could examine her colostomy bag. The TSA has disputed parts of their accounts while acknowledging that screeners violated rules by asking to examine their medical devices.
In another incident that sparked outrage, a 6-year-old girl was reduced to tears after screeners frisked her at New Orleans airport in March 2011 — a scene recorded on video and posted on YouTube.
To reduce the number of pat-downs given to children and the elderly, screeners in the test programs are being told to send those passengers through metal detectors or walk-through imaging machines multiple times to capture a clear picture as well as to use more explosive trace detection tools such as hand swabs, according to the TSA.
"The TSA recognizes that the vast majority of air travelers present no risk to aviation security," Fotenos said. "But it's how we identify those (travelers) and expedite the process that we're working on right now."
The agency is also expanding a program that allows vetted travelers in certain frequent flier programs to go through expedited screening, keep their shoes on and leave liquids and laptops in their bags.
Removing shoes during checkpoint screening has been a common complaint among airline travelers since security was increased after an al-Qaida operative tried to set off a bomb built into his shoe on an American Airlines flight in December 2001.