On the Road
A Summer Invasion of the Body Scanners
By JOE SHARKEY
Published: June 14, 2010
At 6 a.m., Tucson International Airport was already busy in these initial days of the summer crush. Buying a newspaper at the gift shop, I heard loud cackling from the floor. A furry toy dog was tumbling around by my feet, laughing manically.
“It does that whenever somebody moves,” the clerk said, rolling her eyes. “Lots of people are buying them.”
I imagined the poor woman having to spend her entire workday listening to the racket from such a toy, called Chuckle Buddies,which costs $19.99. “Do you want me to step on it?” I asked.
“Thank you, but they have more,” she said.
Here we go, I thought, annoyed already as I began what would be a long day at three airports in the Southwest. I had to spend a short time in Albuquerque. My afternoon return trip required a connection in Las Vegas.
With travel demand picking up, this summer I’m going to report occasionally on days spent at airports. My initial review of the experience is mixed, but mostly positive.
The security line at the pleasant Tucson airport moved efficiently. “Good morning! The sun is shining, the birds are singing,” chirped the Transportation Security Administration officer who checked credentials. That was nice. Good cheer is contagious in air travel.
My flight to Albuquerque on Southwest Airlines boarded efficiently, though it was full. It left on time. The flight attendants were pleasant. As we approached Albuquerque, a flight attendant thanked the passengers for flying Southwest and joked, “We do know that you have a choice in flying, though not necessarily a better choice.” People laughed.
The Albuquerque International Sunport, which strikes me as a silly name, was also busy, but things moved smoothly.
A few hours later, when I returned to the airport for my trip home, I spotted in the security area a lane devoted to one of those new body-imaging machines that have been causing so much concern. You know, the ones that the T.S.A. calls advanced imaging technology machines and critics call strip-search machines.
The security agency has 105 of them at 31 airports, and is awarding contracts to have about 450 installed at various airports by the end of this year. Eventually, these machines will replace the familiar magnetometers that you walk through at checkpoints.
I have reported previously, and will continue doing so, on the various issues raised by these new machines, including privacy (the machines see through clothing), as well as the security agency’s need to detect nonmetallic weapons. That imperative was underscored last Christmas, when the so-called underwear bomber tried to detonate plastic explosives on a flight to Detroit.
But as more of us encounter these machines, I thought it might be useful to share my initial experience so I deliberately headed for the lane with one.
First, you need to remove everything from your clothes, including wallets from pockets, because the machines see mass, metal or not. You can choose to carry your wallet in a hand, I was told. I was also told I had to remove my belt, which had never previously been an issue.
A screener directed me into the portal, within which another screener told me to stand on rubber footprints with my legs slightly spread.
“Stand still, hands over your head,” she said, causing me some concern because I have dropped a few pounds recently and my traveling jeans, beltless, are precariously loose. A glass shutter slid in front of me as the machine did its scan. That was easy, I thought, tugging at my pants, which I had managed to keep up.
But on the far end of the portal waited another agent, who said he needed to inspect the wallet I had chosen to keep in my hand. “Stand facing me,” he said as he began rifling through the bills and cards in my wallet.
I evidently did not comply fully with his specifications. “You really need to stand facing me directly and look directly at me, sir,” he said sharply. Except for the “sir” part, I had a flashback to boot camp many years earlier.
No weaponry having been found in my wallet, I was dismissed. I trudged off to fetch my shoes and my carry-on, then continued on to my flight (on time) to Las Vegas.
My impression of the new machine? It took a long time and felt invasive. And I did not like being ordered around by the security screener. Let me hear about your experiences.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 15, 2010, on page B6 of the New York edition.