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Some passengers can't even fly due to recently intensified TSA patdowns

TSA officials say security searches of sensitive areas are part of protocol, even if some passengers feel violated.
A traveler undergoes an enhanced pat down by a Transportation Security Administration agent at the Denver International Airport. (Getty Images)

In the post-9/11 era, most Americans know that air travel may mean being subjected to somewhat invasive security searches by TSA agents.

But what they might not know is that a protocol to intensify those searches was handed down earlier this year, and some passengers say they have been left feeling as if they were violated.

"The twice-announced, 30-second rummaging over my genitals seemed completely disgusting," said a 74-year-old man who told Metro he skipped a flight out of Logan International Airport after an overly intimate pat-down.

The man, who asked not to be identified for professional reasons, also claimed that TSA agents declined his request for a private screening, which TSA protocol states must be offered to any passenger who does not wish to be patted down while waiting in public view with other passengers.

"I offered twice to enter a private screening area, take of my pants so that they could visually inspect my private parts in great details and go through my pants in a more thorough way than otherwise possible," he said. "After checking with their bosses, they declined my offer, and I then asked to leave to take the train."

TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy declined to comment on the specific allegation, but urged all passengers who feel they were mistreated to "please file complaints with us and file it as soon as possible" and said passengers who feel uncomfortable at any point during screening should ask for privacy or help from an officer trained in working with passengers who are especially sensitive to being searched for any reason, including psychological state or past traumas.

But technically, for the roughly 2 million passengers passing who pass through US airport security checkpoints staffed by some 45,000 TSA officers, anyone may be subjected to TSA's "standard patdown" which "can include inspection of sensitive areas such as breasts, groin and buttocks," according to TSA protocol.

Why do some flyers feel like they were groped? "Pat-downs require sufficient pressure to ensure detection, and areas may undergo a pat-down more than once for the TSA officer to confirm no threat items are detected," the TSA's guidelines state. Officers are directed to "use the back of the hands for pat-downs over sensitive areas of the body," but their protocols state that "In limited cases, additional screening involving a sensitive area pat-down with the front of the hand may be needed to determine that a threat does not exist."

These types of security measures are in place given the number of creative ways would be terrorists have used to attempt to smuggle bombs onto US planes, like underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and shoe bomber Richard Reid. Pat-downs are a secondary screening that only take place when earlier screenings, such as body scanners, indicated a possible area of concern on the passenger's body.

The TSA does have a complaint procedure for passengers who feel they were overly touched during the process.

"TSA welcomes feedback such as comments, compliments and complaints from the traveling public," McCarthy said via email. "Passengers may call, email or reach us by social media at the following location (https://www.tsa.gov/contact/customer-service) to file a complaint."

But the 74-year-old passenger, who has not filed a complaint and preferred simply to abandon the airport, said the fact that such searches can legally take place has turned him off to domestic air travel entirely.

"This disgusting ‘over the top’ security protocol reflects a total lack of democratic accountability in the actions of those who present themselves as guardians of our security," he declared.