Email this article to a friend

Working In These Times

Monday, Nov 22, 2010, 1:00 pm

TSA: Pilots’ Junk Off Limits, Flight Attendants’ Fair Game

BY Lindsay Beyerstein

TSA officers demonstrate the first Advanced Imaging Technology screening unit, the current alternative to invasive body searches for flight attendants.   (Photo by MICHAEL NAGLE/Stringer/Getty Images)

The TSA agreed on Friday to exempt pilots from invasive security pat-downs. Last week, two major pilots' unions demanded that their members be exempted from new rules that require passengers to submit to an invasive body search if they refuse to pass through the new backscatter x-ray machines.

So far, the TSA has not granted the same exemption for flight attendants, despite protests by unions representing these workers. Flight attendants undergo the same fingerprinting and 10-year FBI background check as pilots.

Unions representing pilots and flight attendants are advising their members to avoid the scanners because they inflict micro-doses of radiation. The dose is trivially small, equivalent to the extra radiation exposure of flying for 15 minutes, but pilots may have to pass through the scanners twice every working day. Radiation exposure is cumulative, and pilots are already exposed to large amounts of radiation as part of their work. The old scanners didn't cause radiation exposure.

Why should flight professionals accept any additional radiation from scanners that haven't even been proven to be more effective than the old technology? The TSA has yet to supply a cost-benefit analysis for the scanners. Basically any question you might ask about why flight professionals should put up with extra radiation or genital touching in the name of security could also be asked of the general public. Why is the government forcing anyone to participate in a giant, uncontrolled, human experiment?

The TSA won't even explain exactly what the new body searches involve, much less why they are more effective than the old pat downs. In late October the TSA suddenly introduced a new and invasive body search protocol which involves the screener touching the passenger's clothed genitals. The pilots' argued that these searches were degrading.

"In my view, it is unacceptable to submit to one in public while wearing the uniform of a professional airline pilot. I recommend that all pilots insist that such screening is performed in an out-of-view area to protect their privacy and dignity," wrote Allied Pilots Association President David Bates in a message to members last week.

Most Americans would find it degrading to be groped in public, even in the name of security. It is doubly degrading for flight attendants who are themselves trained security professionals. Flight attendants are frequent targets of air rage and disrespect from passengers.

Public pat-downs of flight attendants in uniform will only further errode their hard-won status and authority. Degrading and demoralizing flight crews, the last line of defense against terrorist attack, is much more dangerous than skipping the pat downs.

The TSA's decision to exempt pilots but not flight attendants smacks of sexism. Over 95% of U.S. airline pilots are men, 74% of flight attendants are women. Our society takes it for granted that men have absolute bodily autonomy; whereas women are often expected to subordinate their bodily autonomy for someone else's idea of the greater good.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

View Comments