August 11, 6 a.m.—San Francisco International Airport
A twenty-something woman is running the back of her hand across the base of my breasts. I stand there, legs spread as she moves on to the inside of my thighs. She runs her hand underneath the waistline of my pants and across my buttocks.
I’m angry and embarrassed. The woman touching me seems embarrassed, too.
When she’s done her coworker, a young woman with a large neck tattoo poorly covered with makeup, rummages through my suitcase, purse, and laptop bag. Piece by piece, she pulls out my still-damp bathing suit, my underwear, and a few crumpled up dresses. She tosses my iPad aside, jiggles a bottle of prescription medicine, and stares at my EpiPen, bewildered. She’s enjoying this—today she is in charge of me.
Sad to say, if you fly often, you’ve likely had a similar experience. Mary Beth Ruskai, a Boston-based chemistry and mathematics research professor, certainly has.
Dr. Ruskai works on quantum information theory, and despite having two artificial knees and an artificial hip, she’s an avid hiker and skier—at 70 years old. Ruskai counts “proving that an atom with fixed nuclear charge can bind only finitely many electrons” among her proudest achievements… along with challenging the challenging Transportation Security Administration’s policy of enhanced pat-downs in federal court.
Artificial Joints Up Your Chance of an Enhanced Pat Down
In the US, 4.5 million people over age 50 have artificial knees, and over 1 million people receive some type of total joint replacement each year—most often a new knee or hip. For these people, getting through airport security with their dignity intact can be next to impossible, largely because of TSA’s current policy of performing enhanced pat-downs on anyone who sets off a walk-through metal detector.
My enhanced pat-down experiences (the incident described above wasn’t the first) seem tame compared to what others routinely endure. Here’s how a few distressed travelers described their experiences in letters to the TSA:
- “I felt violated. If any other person had done this to me it would constitute sexual assault.”
- “I began shaking and felt completely violated, abused and assaulted by the TSA agent.”
- “I was reduced to tears—it was an utterly humiliating experience.”
Even John Pistole, former FBI agent and the current head of the TSA, described the experience as uncomfortable.
2010: The Year TSA Got Extra Frisky
Enhanced pat-downs weren’t always de rigueur. Ruskai travels often for work, and after her right knee was replaced in 2008 and left knee and right hip was replaced in 2012, she began traveling with x-rays and other medical documents noting her metal joints. Also, the Department of Homeland Security has cleared her as a Trusted Traveler, meaning she’s already voluntarily provided copious amounts of personal information to DHS, and it’s determined she’s a low-risk flier.
When Ruskai’s metal knee set off walkthrough metal detectors prior to 2010, she’d offer up medical documents noting the artificial joint, a female TSA agent would use a handheld metal detector to confirm that the metal on her was limited to her knee, and then the agent would pat down her knee area only. In other words, the process was an annoying, but that’s about it.
Then in late 2010, the TSA began using enhanced pat-downs in lieu of handheld metal detectors for secondary screening at all security lines with walkthrough metal detectors. Though it had began using Advanced Imaging Technology (full body scanners) in 2008—which will cost taxpayers $2 billion by 2015 and presents its own privacy issues—around 290 of the 750 or so domestic security checkpoints still use walkthrough metal detectors as their primary mode of screening. And as you’ve likely noticed, full body scanners are often not operational at the airports that do have them.
As pat-downs became the standard secondary screening measure, TSA also amplified what they involved. According to a brief filed by Ruskai’s attorneys:
The new procedures involve “a more detailed tactile inspection of areas higher on the thigh and in the groin area … [and] routinely involve touching of buttocks and genitals.” … The agent is required to run the hand up the passenger’s thighs until reaching the groin twice on each leg—from the front and back. … The agent also must insert the hand into the passenger’s waistband around the entire waste, and for female passengers, around the breasts.
I squirmed just typing that out. It’s exactly what happens.
Between February and April of 2011, TSA agents performed four separate enhanced pat-downs on Ruskai. As these pat-downs continued, she began wearing shorts through airport security and asked that TSA agents visually inspect her legs. TSA’s answer: No.
Ruskai filed complaints with TSA and DHS, and 10 months later TSA issued a final order stating it would not investigate her complaints. In April 2012, she petitioned the First Circuit Court of Appeals to review that order and determine, among other issues, whether the enhanced pat-downs violate her Fourth Amendment rights. The court heard oral arguments in January of this year, and the case drags on.
I won’t regurgitate all of the 4th Amendment case law here. (If you’re curious, you can read the Ruskai case briefs and listen to oral arguments.) The abridged version is: the 4th protects you from unreasonable searches and seizures; airport security screenings are “searches” under the 4th Amendment; and, under narrow circumstances, including where the government seeks to prevent hazardous conditions, a warrantless, non-individualized search may be reasonable, depending on the seriousness of the hazard and the invasiveness of the search.
While the court gets to decide the whether routinely molesting travelers with artificial joints is reasonable under the law, the argument borders on the absurd, especially when a less invasive and equally (if not more) effective options exists: the handheld metal detectors used prior to 2010.
On a side note, TSA has certified certain foreign airports as maintaining security measures comparable to those of US airports. Travelers flying into the US from these airports are not put through additional security when they arrive. Nevertheless, security at these airports does not routinely perform pat-downs on travelers with artificial joints. If the TSA itself has certified that security at these airports is equivalent to that of US airports, how can these searches be essential to safety?
Take a look at the picture of the oh-so-dangerous Dr. Ruskai. Remember, she’s 70 years old, travels with medical documentation of her three artificial joints, and DHS has cleared her as a Trusted Traveler.
Source: Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences
The official purpose of TSA security checkpoints is to prevent passengers from carrying weapons and explosives onto airplanes. Fine—no one in his right mind wants to be on a plane with explosives. Nevertheless, it seems downright silly to use limited resources searching people like Dr. Ruskai for weapons and explosives. As mentioned in oral arguments, why would a terrorist use someone guaranteed to set off a metal detector to smuggle dangerous material onto an airplane?
For now, the millions of seniors with artificial joints have limited choices: avoid airplanes or only travel through airports that use full body scanners. Then again, there’s no guarantee those full body scanners will be up and running when you make your way through security. If you have to walk through a metal detector, prepare to be assaulted.
I don’t have an artificial joint, but for whatever reason TSA often singles me out for enhanced pat-downs. Maybe the freckles and blue eyes make me look dangerous. Regardless, I’m applying to become a Trusted Traveler through TSA Pre✓ in the hope that this will stop. If you’re a US citizen or lawful permanent resident, have never been convicted of sedition, treason, murder, or other outrageous felonies, and have $85 to spare, consider doing the same.
Yes, TSA Pre✓ and the other Trusted Traveler programs require you to divulge personal information. And yes, it’s frightening that you might have to considering doing this to avoid airport groping. On balance, though, I’d rather hand over personal information that the federal government surely has already than let another TSA agent stick her hand in my pants—how sad it is that anyone has to make that choice.
On the Lighter Side
Dennis says “hello.” He and chief analyst Andrey Dashkov are wrapping up the next issue of Miller’s Money Forever, and he’ll be back next week. In the meantime, you can listen to Dennis talk about his book Retirement Reboot on WGNtv.
With that, I’ll leave you with a touch (pun intended) of TSA humor:
Until next week…