Lady's Island woman offended by Savannah airport pat-down

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Lady's Island woman offended by Savannah airport pat-down

Published Tuesday, November 23, 2010   |  1037 Words  |  

Although some plane passengers are complaining about full-body scans, one 74-year-old Port Royal woman would have preferred a trip through the imaging machine to the pat-down she received.

While traveling to her husband's funeral in Virginia, Cecile Dickson Banner said a female security agent at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport reached into her undergarments and touched her breasts and groin after she was unable to remove a blouse that agents mistook for a coat.

Banner, a retired consultant flying to Washington-Dulles International Airport on Nov. 10 with her daughter, said the experience left her "frightened and traumatized."

"They said my top was loose fitting -- that's why they had to search me," said Banner, adding that until her retirement three years ago, she flew at least once per week. "I've never been so traumatized by anything in my life. It was the agents' attitudes. They exercised their power with great glee."

Banner said Tuesday she did not file a formal complaint with either the Transportation Security Administration or the airport.

Banner was not given the option to enter a body-scan machine, which resemble large refrigerators encased in clear plastic, because the Savannah airport does not have one, according to Jonathan Allen, an Atlanta-based TSA spokesman.

"I would have gladly gone through one," Banner said.

There are 411 body-scan machines at 69 airports across the country. The closest to the Lowcountry are in the Charlotte, Atlanta and Jacksonville airports, Allen said.

Not all travelers are selected for scans, which show their contours on a computer in a private room removed from security checkpoints, according to the TSA's website.

The scans take only about 10 seconds, but people who decline them must submit to a full pat-down. Also, passengers who set off an alarm at a walk-through metal detector or who opt out of the body-scan receive a pat-down, the TSA website says.

Banner said she did not set off a metal detector.

Presumably she was asked to submit to a TSA pat-down because of her loose, layered clothing, said Lori Lynah, a Savannah airport spokeswoman.

"In her case it was probably the clothing," said Lynah, adding that airport administrators are prohibited from commenting on TSA security techniques.

Banner said she was wearing a black silk two-piece dress, black stockings and a black slip.

Allen said Tuesday he could not discuss whether the new pat-down allows security agents to run their hands on the inside of travelers' clothing or undergarments.

"I can't disclose specific information about pat-downs for security reasons," Allen said.

According to The Associated Press, the TSA's new procedure, which went into effect Nov. 1, includes a security worker running a hand up the inside of passengers' legs and along the cheek of the buttocks, as well as making direct contact with the groin region.


National transportation officials say they are trying to address complaints nationwide about the new security procedures.

TSA chief John Pistole said Tuesday the agency is asking government security experts if there is a way to make the security pat-down less invasive but just as thorough.

During an appearance Monday on CBS' "The Early Show," Pistole said he was concerned about people who have had uncomfortable experiences with agents. However, he said no modifications to the procedures are planned as yet. In an incident Nov. 7, Tom Sawyer, a 61-year-old bladder cancer survivor in Michigan who wears a bag that collects his urine, said a security agent at a Detroit airport patted him down so roughly, it caused the bag to spill its contents on his clothing.

Airports across the country may see disruptions today because of a loosely organized Internet boycott of the TSA's full-body scans.

The protest, dubbed "National Opt-Out Day," is scheduled to coincide with the busiest travel day of the year. An Obama administration's transportation security official asked passengers not to participate, saying the boycotts would only "tie up" those traveling to see their loved ones.

"Until they figure out a solution to this, some people will probably stop flying," said Lynah of the Savannah airport.


Pat-downs can take up to four minutes, according to the TSA's website, though they can be longer if someone asks that it be done in a room out of public view or if someone asks for a full explanation of the procedure beforehand.

Banner said she found out after the incident that she could have taken a travel companion --in this case, her daughter -- with her into a private area for the pat-down.

"I did not want to be out of my daughter's sight and was worried the delay would cause us to miss our flight," she said.

Though Banner didn't lodge a formal complaint, she said she wrote letters to The Beaufort Gazette, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano.

"I wanted to let people in the area know about what I experienced because I know a lot of people travel out of the Savannah airport," she said. "The thought did not occur to me to make a complaint with the airport because I didn't think they could do anything."

Allen said there are several ways to complain to the TSA, including visiting the agency's website or speaking with a supervisor or manager at the checkpoint.

"We take complaints seriously and review each one individually," he said.Lynah said travelers can file complaints with staff at the Savannah airport, but airport staff can only document the incident and help passengers talk with TSA staff.

She said airport organizations, such as the American Association of Airport Executives, advise upset travelers to contact their local elected representatives.

"We can't do our due diligence unless a complaint is filed, but even then, we can't do anything about TSA complaints," Lynah said. "We're under federal regulations."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.