FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Airport security "pat-downs" might constitute sexual harassment and might discriminate against women, the American Civil Liberties Union said yesterday.
After receiving numerous complaints from around the nation, the organization hopes to meet with top Homeland Security Department officials next week to ask whether screeners are given specific standards on how to select passengers and conduct secondary screenings.
The ACLU is concerned that women, more than men, are targeted for pat-downs. If so, that raises questions of whether the Transportation Security Administration is discriminating on the basis of gender, said Barry Steinhardt, of the ACLU's New York office.
"What they're doing is subjecting women to very aggressive, intrusive searches," he said. "We're worried that this is, in fact, sexual harassment."
Passenger Rhonda Gaynier, who said she was given a "breast exam" by screeners in Tampa last month, was so upset she retained Norman Siegel, a prominent civil rights lawyer, to study the feasibility of a class-action suit against the TSA.
"People are so offended by this, they can't believe it," said Gaynier, a New York attorney.
With the bustling Thanksgiving travel weekend under way, the TSA insists pat-downs are necessary because passengers could hide non-metallic explosives under bulky clothing and get through magnetometers undetected.
Under new procedures for secondary screenings imposed Sept. 22, screeners are required to use the back of their hands to check breasts, genitals and buttocks. Passengers can request it be done out of public view. Female screeners must pat down women and male screeners men.
The initiative began after two Russian airliners exploded Aug. 24, killing 90 people. Two Chechen women are thought to have hidden explosives under their clothing.
TSA spokeswoman Lauren Stover denied that women are singled out more than men.
"We do not discriminate against any gender, race or ethnicity," she said. "Our bottom line is to keep explosives off an airplane."
The airlines are required to randomly select a percentage of passengers for a secondary screening. Others are chosen because they either act suspiciously or wear clothing that could obscure a dangerous item.
Since September, the TSA has received 250 complaints, mostly from women, Stover said. Yet she noted that is a small number in light of the 1.8 million passengers who fly each day from 450 U.S. airports.
"We need to let people know that these new procedures aren't meant to be invasive; they're only for their safety," she said.
Just the same, many passengers said screeners were too aggressive with metal-detection wands and improperly touched their private parts.
"I did find it very offensive and unnecessary," said Tonya Zucco, of Delray Beach, Fla., after being subjected to a secondary screening while traveling from Greenville-Spartanburg in South Carolina to Palm Beach International last month. "It has made me think twice about traveling, and this is a shame. You don't need to treat the customers as criminals."
"The feeling of humiliation and being degraded never goes away," said Jay Feld, of Deerfield Beach, Fla., who said he has been searched on his last five flights. "Travel is not fun anymore, nor are the abusive techniques in the name of national security."
Other passengers say pat-downs are essential.
"I think most of us prefer to have more privacy than less, but unfortunately there are people out there ready and willing to kill us," said Norm King of Lighthouse Point, Fla., a frequent flier. "So if that means we have to stand in a security line and give up some personal privacy once in a while, well, that's a much smaller price to pay than the travelers on 9/11 paid."
Stephen Glaze, of Fort Lauderdale, said he is "shocked and amazed" at the complaints.
"Flying is a privilege, not a right," he said. "Being safe in the air is something we all want to be, and I would go through whatever endeavor to do so."
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.