I don't want my kids to get "patted down" at the airport
November 28, 2012 11:14 AM   Subscribe

I haven't flown in quite a long time, so I'm not familiar with all the latest security procedures here in the U.S. In a couple months my family will be taking a trip and I'm not comfortable with my children being scanned or touched. What are my options (other than not flying)?

The trip is a gift, including the flight, so not flying isn't really an option. I'd just like to know what choices are available to me and my family.
posted by squaregear to Travel & Transportation (29 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Kids go through regular metal detectors, not the scanners. When I have gone through wearing my kid, I go through the regular metal detector too. An agent tests my palms for explosive residue, but no one has ever touched my kid.

It would be a very unusual situation for an agent to touch your child.
posted by purpleclover at 11:20 AM on November 28, 2012

From the TSA:

TSA uses advanced imaging technology (AIT) to safely screen passengers for metallic and non-metallic threats. Any passenger capable of assuming and staying in the required position for 5 seconds is eligible for AIT screening. If a child 12 and under goes through AIT and alarms, they will have an opportunity to go through the technology again or the Security Officer may use other procedures to resolve the alarm to reduce the need for a pat down.

Parents carrying infants or children cannot be screened by the imaging technology. In addition, parents accompanying children may opt out of being screened by imaging technology to prevent them from being separated from their family.

AIT screening is optional for all passengers. Eligible passengers who opt out of AIT screening with receive alternative screening, to include a thorough pat-down.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:22 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Security equipment and procedures vary a lot between airports, and smaller airports are less likely to have the more invasive scanning equipment installed. If your itinerary isn't already set as far as which airports you'll be using, you might look into the specific security procedures of the airports you were planning to go through and whether there are other local options.
posted by polymath at 11:26 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you do not wish to have your children scanned (imaged or metal detector) or touched, you do not wish for them to fly. You have the right to opt your children out of a scan, but then they will be subject to a pat-down.

FWIW, my children are of grade-school and pre-school age and they have traveled internationally once a year since birth. I just have them walk through the metal detector (they're too young for the imaging scanner). I cannot think of a reason for a child not to walk through the metal detector.
posted by Tanizaki at 11:27 AM on November 28, 2012 [12 favorites]

I wouldn't count on them not touching your kid. I have, in fact, seen a disabled minor child (under the age of twelve, and profoundly disabled) kept back from his parents, and searched (physically searched, and a little roughly at that), while drool ran down the poor kid's chin and he cried. The kid was in a chair. I turned the air blue cussing, but there was not a damn thing I could do, nor the parents either, other than not fly. You want a solution, but there is none, other than not fly.

You may very well get lucky and the kid won't get patted down. I have seen kids just getting waved through. So it's your gamble.
posted by thelastcamel at 11:29 AM on November 28, 2012 [11 favorites]

Just metal detector only for kids, and kids think it's fun, so make it a fun family experience. :)
posted by Dansaman at 11:29 AM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

If your kid dings on the metal detector, they may be (and very likely will be) subjected to a non-optional pat-down. If having a TSA touch your child even in an edge-case scenario is absolutely out of the question, then you need to not fly.

It sucks, sorry.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:36 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

It would be a very unusual situation for an agent to touch your child.

I think they get the random pull like everyone else. A few years ago our son (he was 4 or 5 at the time) was selected as a 'person of interest' on a flight out of ATL to BWI. He got a very basic pat down (right in front of me) and we went on our way.

Who knew he was an Al-Qaeda sleeper agent? It's been a family joke since then.
posted by jquinby at 11:37 AM on November 28, 2012

The options depend on which airports you're flying through. Some airports have certain security lanes that take you through the AIG scanners and some that don't, or one side of the airport is equipped with the scanners and one isn't, or small airports may not have the scanners at all. So sometimes you can be strategic about it and you can aim for a non-scanner lane. But if the airport does use scanners, then they do use them, even for kids. And the alternative is a pat-down.

If it's any consolation, the pat-down is always always done by a same-gender TSA officer, it's done right next to the security area where anyone can watch and see (unless you request to have it done in private, which you can), and it's not sexual at all - I opt out and have it done every time. The female pat downs are done using the backs of the hands to sweep under the breasts and over the buttock area. My worst one was a lady who was unnecessarily rough on the sweep up into the crotch area, but I doubt that would happen with a child.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 11:38 AM on November 28, 2012

You don't really have a lot of options if the TSA chooses to search your kids. That said, your attitude will dictate if this is traumatic or just a hassle.

How old are your kids? Will you be using a stroller or are they walking on their own?

Here's the drill:

1. Once you've passed the TSA checkpoint, you can put your license back in your wallet. You won't need it. Keep the boarding passes out, in your hand, as you go through the scanners.

2. Take shoes off. Everyone should have comfy shoes that are easy to slip on or off. For awhile there was a question as to whether the shoes were in the bin or on the belt. I just put them directly on the belt. You might want to have sockies or something because, ew, bare foot cooties.

3. Each person can have 1 One Quart Zipper Baggie with personal items. These items can contain only 3 oz of liquid. The containters can't be larger, even if there is 3 oz or less in them. I find fooling with this to be a huge hassle. Don't carry this on, check it.

4. Electronic stuff needs to be in a bin, outside of it's carrier. E-readers, gaming, etc. If you have a handbag, your phone can be in there. If you have a laptop or tablet, take it out of the sleeve and put it by itself in a bin.

5. Bags go on the belt, handbags go in the bin.

6. Each person goes through the scanner separately. Have parent 1, go first and then the kids, with parent 2 pulling up the rear. That way no one is separated on either side of the scanner away from the parents.

7. Full body scanners are kind of intimidating. You can practice at home with young or fearful kids so they know what to do. You stand with legs slightly apart and your arms up over your head. Hold for about 10 seconds and the TSA guy says, "Okay, next!"

8. If its a regular scanner, just walk through it.

9. Use common sense. Don't bring toys that look like wepons. Don't wind your kids up with stress and general discombobulation at the TSA check point. Be very friendly to the TSA folks, you'll be amazed at how nice they can be. Smile!

10. In larger airports there's a line for slower, less mobile folks, wheelchairs, elderly and folks with kids, look for it and use it.

11. I've been patted down by TSA (darn underwire bras) it's no big deal. Honest, it isn't. My mom went to pieces, and I still don't know why. No one actually suspected her, they just have to do it.

12. Don't wear clothes with rivets, metal, etc.

Flying is just no fun these days. But it's all about your attitude.

I fly out of Hartsfield, if I can be nice and friendly with that nightmare, anyone can be!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:39 AM on November 28, 2012 [10 favorites]

Sounds like you're good for this trip. If you want to avoid even metal detectors, on the next gift-giving occasion, let your family know you want train tickets instead, if that's doable. The only safety measure you're likely to encounter is a bomb-sniffing dog, which the kids will adore.
posted by Currer Belfry at 11:39 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not a huge fan of the scanners either, but depending on the nature of your concerns about them, you might be reassured to know that the last time I flew, there was an infographic up about the new 'no nudity' scanning procecure - essentially, the people reviewing the images aren't shown those alarming nude-ish outlines, but rather a generic male/female outline image.
posted by heyforfour at 11:53 AM on November 28, 2012

When we flew with my son a few years ago (Boston-Baltimore, Baltimore-Boston), he had just turned one. But because he could walk, he had to go through the metal detector by himself, which just seemed absurd to me. So I went through, then he went through, then my husband went through. Neither of us were patted down that time.

When I flew by myself after my husband's grandmother had died (he and my son took a train the night before), I declined the body scanners and was patted down. The first TSA agent was bitchy about it, but the person patting me down was quite respectful.

When I flew out of Boston with my two month old a few years after that, I walked through a metal detector holding my daughter (I was flying alone with her), placed her in her car seat in the snap-n-go, and went on my way. I wasn't directed to the body scanners or they didn't even have it in that section of the airport.

When I flew out of Baltimore with her, TSA was a little more gruff and there were a lot more people. But otherwise it was basically the same procedure.

I recommend that you print and bring this with you.

It may not prevent an asshole TSA agent from being an asshole, but it is at least something you have so that you know the rules and so you can politely express that this your understanding of what is allowed.

If your children are close to but under 12 or look like they're older than 12 but are actually under, bring birth certificates. And if they are over 12, they are unfortunately subject to adult rules.
posted by zizzle at 11:55 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Ruthless Bunny has it. Also, encourage everyone that is comfortable doing so to wear clothes with elastic.

Instead of doing the stupid 3oz of toiletries stuff, I use my quart bag for my makeup and I put my brushes in my carryon also. No one has EVER hassled me, and I don't have to worry about make up getting all over things, or getting nicked out of my luggage, or whatever. Since make up can be expensive, I consider this to be a protip.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:59 AM on November 28, 2012

I have four-year-old twins, and we fly with them once or twice a year (flew IAD-TPA a few weeks ago, though we usually fly IAD-ATL). Kids 12 and under don't have to take off their shoes anymore, which is a big help. At IAD, ATL, and TPA, we were directed out of the body scanner lines and into regular metal detector lines - mainly I think because with the scanners you have to stand a certain way (arms in the air, still, for several seconds) and the TSA agents (very correctly) assessed that our children wouldn't be able to do it.

I have flown out of a lot of different airports and ATL is by far the worst - the TSA culture there is very confrontational. We had a very unpleasant incident there when my kids were 2 and we were negotiating shoes and carseats - one of the kids ran back out into the unsecured area through a roped-off scanner and TSA initially wouldn't let us go get him - it was a nightmare. IAD, on the other hand, is always pleasant and gave my kids badge stickers on this last trip.
posted by candyland at 12:02 PM on November 28, 2012

Reading the procedure Ruthless Bunny lists above, I see quite a few things that the airports I fly out of don't do, and want to point out that all airports are different—TSA procedures are set airport by airport (which is why I think they're so ridiculous). Don't go in expecting one thing. I used to fly frequently and still fly every few months and the inconsistency is annoying. For example, I've never had to take my iPad/Kindle/phone out of my purse or show my boarding pass after the first checkpoint before the scanner. In some airports (usually smaller), I don't have to take off my jewelry to pass through the scanner. I've been chastised for not putting my boots in a bin so now I always do.

Be prepared for your experience to differ from what's being said above. Even the same airport does things different depending on who is on duty. It's annoying but good to know.

Give yourself extra time, lots of extra time. I know that sounds like obvious advice but everyone is rushing through the airport and if you want to advocate for your family, don't expect TSA agents to respond to your needs in a timely fashion. I have friends who won't go through the new scanners and sometimes it takes awhile for someone to come pat them down. Sometimes I have to build in time to make sure the TSA agent realizes that it is indeed okay for me to have more than 3 oz of my contact lens solution, they've called over a supervisor over that one even though it's a well known policy.
posted by thesocietyfor at 12:06 PM on November 28, 2012

thelastcamel: I wouldn't count on them not touching your kid. I have, in fact, seen a disabled minor child (under the age of twelve, and profoundly disabled) kept back from his parents, and searched (physically searched, and a little roughly at that), while drool ran down the poor kid's chin and he cried. The kid was in a chair.

I've traveled by air quite a bit, my spouse more so (he travels several times a quarter, and is away right now in fact), and we have never seen anything like this happen, so there's another data point for you.

If I did see any abuse, though, I wouldn't turn the air blue by cussing-- I would politely ask to speak to a supervisor. Parents should do the same thing. You WILL be searched, but you have a right to be treated respectfully while being searched, and the TSA should be explaining what they need to do and why before any hand scanning is done. Abuse of any kind is completely unacceptable.

Yelling and threatening solve nothing. Staying calm when the situation goes pear-shaped is the best defense to things going even more pear-shaped, in my experience.

Avoiding the issue doesn't really get you anywhere, either. Airports aren't the only place scanning people these days. Are you just going to throw your hands up in the air and resign yourself to never travelling, never letting your kids see the world?

If you plan to wait until you consider them "old enough" to be scanned, then how do you decide when that is? If one child has already through the metal detector and the other gets pulled aside to be hand-scanned, you can't just turn the plane around and go home.

I think the best thing you can do is to realistically assess the situation and prepare for it. As parents, we prepare our kids for the bumps in the road they are going to face. Your kids WILL have to be scanned, if not now, then certainly later in their lives. It's just a reality of the world we live in. Staying calm, explaining the reasons for the scans, and letting them know that this is just standard procedure for everyone is the most practical way to deal with this.

Your kids may not be affected at all by any of this, anyway, the way you seem to be. In fact, what they are most likely to be affected by is the way you handle the scanning process. If you act like the security is normal and accepted, they will follow your lead.

Consider teaching your kids how to get through the scans quickly and efficiently. You can treat it like a game--you wear shoes that slip off and on easily, and socks are good because EWW gross airport floor; your rolling bag goes on the conveyer belt and your cell phone and/or your DS in the tray; don't forget to WAIT until the security person tells you it's okay to go through the (metal or otherwise) scanner. BAM! You did it, you're done! You are getting so good at this! Etc.

Also, your kids should go through security first, with you behind telling them what to do, so that if they do get held up you are on the same side of security as they are. That's just common sense, though.
posted by misha at 12:18 PM on November 28, 2012 [7 favorites]

Unfortunately, the reality of the situation is that in the US, most airports have scanners, and while you can opt out of using them, you have to be patted down instead. Depending on the airport, this can be polite and pleasant (Nashville) or rough and rude (JFK).

You can do what the folks at FlyerTalk call a "self-directed opt-out", meaning that if there is a line that goes to a metal detector and a line that goes to a full-body scanner, you choose the line with the metal detector, even if it is longer. If you go through the metal detector and don't set it off, it is highly unlikely that you will get a pat-down. You can always very calmly and politely request a supervisor if you feel that anything happening is inappropriate.
posted by bedhead at 12:32 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

1. Once you've passed the TSA checkpoint, you can put your license back in your wallet. You won't need it. Keep the boarding passes out, in your hand, as you go through the scanners.

2. Take shoes off. Everyone should have comfy shoes that are easy to slip on or off. For awhile there was a question as to whether the shoes were in the bin or on the belt. I just put them directly on the belt. You might want to have sockies or something because, ew, bare foot cooties.

These two are somewhat dated, I believe.

I haven't needed the boarding pass past the initial license screen in about two years and I travel through a lot of different US airports. In fact, at most places the TSA folks are telling you to put them away (although not in your pockets, as that trigger the advanced imagers and get you a pat-down).

Also, children under 12 and seniors over 75 can leave their shoes on.

Now, all of this is with the caveat that the TSA agent standing in front of you may or may not follow these rules, and it's up to you whether or not you choose to argue the point. However, in my recent travels these seem to be generally well adhered to.
posted by BlueDuke at 12:42 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

The points about the individual airports and agents being unpredictable are really important to note.

It's a shame that we have to choose surrendering our essential right to avoid radiation and being touched (amongst other indignities against our personal integrity) in order to use certain conveyances, I so agree, and it's made more difficult by inconsistency. In order to be fully prepared, the airports you'll be using should have pages on their websites that detail what security measures they employ, so you'll know if you can opt for metal detector over the more radiation-heavy scanner, as an example.

The thing about touching, though, is that you can't guarantee it won't happen. Random checks are pulled on all ages, so even if you do go successfully through a metal detector (or even make it all the way to your gate), your children can still be pulled aside for a random pat-down. If the trip absolutely must be taken, then this is the time for you to start working on your internal feelings about it so that your external response is calm, collected, and supportive to your children if it happens. That's honestly and sincerely the very best thing you can do.

No matter what happens - no matter what - you must stay calm and know the proper order for escalation rather than letting your instincts or emotions take over. All of the really troubling stories I've heard involved the parent losing their cool and having it all go nuts at that point, no matter how justified the parent's response.

I wish you a trouble-free trip in all respects.
posted by batmonkey at 12:54 PM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Keep the boarding passes out, in your hand, as you go through the scanners.

Hartsfield. I did this a couple of weeks ago for a flight to San Francisco. So every airport has its differences.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:57 PM on November 28, 2012

I wouldn't count on them not touching your kid. I have, in fact, seen a disabled minor child (under the age of twelve, and profoundly disabled) kept back from his parents, and searched (physically searched, and a little roughly at that), while drool ran down the poor kid's chin and he cried. The kid was in a chair.

Just as an alternate anecdote, my 14 year old daughter is profoundly disabled and in a wheelchair. She has also had scoliosis surgery so has titanium rods and screws throughout her upper body. We have flown with her on several occasions, and have always been treated courteously and professionally. My wife has always been permitted to remain right by her side and assist with any positioning required. That's not to say that the agents aren't thorough -- they often take several minutes to scan her and the entire chair -- but it has not been our experience that she's been mistreated.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:16 PM on November 28, 2012

Mefites (people in general) really love TSA horror stories. I maintain that it is unusual -- not impossible -- for a kid to get patted down. (Last week the kid behind me dinged the metal detector at DFW. He just had to empty his pockets and go through again.)

I have flown eight times out of six airports in the past year with a small child. Security so far has been pretty painless. No one can guarantee that it will be the same for you, but the horror stories are not the norm.
posted by purpleclover at 1:21 PM on November 28, 2012

You can't guarantee that your children will not be touched by agents.
TSA has procedures in place that have reduced, but will not eliminate, the need for pat downs to resolve the alarm, including multiple passes through screening technologies and other procedures.
I refuse to use the backscatter X-ray "pornoscanner" machines because (1) they emit harmful ionizing radiation, (2) I do not trust the TSA's assessment that the concomitant health risks are minimal when prominent biomedical researchers have come to the opposite conclusion and the TSA refuses to use standard radiation safety techniques like radiation badges, and (3) I do not trust TSA staff to maintain or operate them correctly. You may additionally not want your children's naked image to be shown to government agents, even if they are in another room, where they might use cell phone cameras to take photos of them. Always opt out of these machines.

I use the millimeter-wave scanners without complaint. They do not emit ionizing radiation, and do not display naked images to a human. Instead they light up a what is basically a stick figure display if some anomaly needs to be cleared.
posted by grouse at 1:31 PM on November 28, 2012

I think the point of all these stories is that you really can't predict exactly what will happen - most people go through without incident, but it is possible that your child will be selected for extra security.

My incident: took place prior to TSA and the metal detectors were at the gate. My 10-year-old was randomly selected for extra security patdown and I was ordered by the agents to GET ON THE PLANE and leave her there by herself. Um, no, I don't think so. I stood right there and waited until she was done and we boarded together.

All the other hundreds of times I've been on planes were without any incident at all.
posted by CathyG at 1:59 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

FWIW, at Boston Logan earlier this week, one of my kids was randomly selected for heightened scrutiny and they inspected my palms instead, not at my request, just what they did.
posted by lakeroon at 2:06 PM on November 28, 2012

I don't know how old your kids are, but can you sit them down and maybe just give them a quick run-through of what might happen? Pat with the backs of your hands, walk through a doorway, etc. Make it seem normal and not scary, even though you personally may be feeling otherwise.

It's really, really important that your actions give them the kinds of cues to stay on track. Of course kids will be kids and things will be nutty and unpredictable, but if the kids sense that you're more keyed-up than usual because you fear this experience, they'll really pick up on it and things could get more complicated.
posted by Madamina at 2:50 PM on November 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

You don't have a lot of options. As the responses so far have indicated, your actual experience may vary from airport to airport or even from day to day at one airport, but you are subject to TSA rules at all commercial airports in the US. I suggest that you study the TSA website to learn about their rules. Be aware that the rules may change between now and when you fly, and that individual TSA officers may bend the rules in ways you find favorable or unfavorable.

TSA Status is a crowd-sourced database of information about whether body scanners are observed to be in use at specific airports. You can plug in the three-letter IATA airport codes for airports near your home and your destination to see what other travelers have reported and possibly choose an airport where the body scanners are not in use. Just keep in mind that the reports are unofficial and only reflect what people have observed in the past; your airport may install body scanners in the future. Pat-downs may be required at any airport. I'm not sure whether children are routinely selected for random pat-downs.
posted by Orinda at 5:01 PM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Re being touched by TSA, if it happens --- I wear a medical device and get patted down by TSA regularly. It's really not a big deal for someone who doesn't have, e.g., a history of abuse. They are quite respectful.
posted by kestrel251 at 7:19 PM on November 28, 2012

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