UPDATE 1-Pilots get reprieve from new U.S. screening checks

Fri Nov 19, 2010 6:58pm EST

* Latest shift by TSA after complaints about screening

* Change comes ahead of busy holiday travel period

* Lawmakers call patdown policy "overly intrusive" (Adds lawmakers comments)

By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON, Nov 19 (Reuters) - U.S. airline pilots will be allowed to bypass new heightened security screening at U.S. airports, the Transportation Security Administration said on Friday, relenting after a lawsuit and outcry that pilots already undergo rigorous background checks.

Pilots have complained bitterly they should not have to go through new full-body scanners or be subjected to thorough patdowns when they already go through extensive security checks and control the airplane.

"Allowing these uniformed pilots, whose identity has been verified, to go through expedited screening at the checkpoint just makes for smart security and an efficient use of our resources," TSA Administrator John Pistole said in a prepared statement.

The TSA, created after the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States in 2001 by al Qaeda militants using hijacked passenger planes, has been under fire since introducing more rigorous screening procedures last month.

The extra security, which comes just before a busy travel season over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, followed two plots against the U.S. aviation system in the past year.

A Nigerian man tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear aboard a U.S. flight from Amsterdam to Detroit last Christmas. Last month, two packages stuffed with explosives made it aboard two U.S. cargo flights overseas.

The Yemen-based group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for both plots.

Complaints have flooded in that the new measures are too invasive and violate constitutional and privacy rights.

While Pistole has acknowledged the procedures are more invasive, he and administration officials have said they are necessary to prevent someone from smuggling a bomb or weapon aboard a plane.

'COMMON SENSE, RISK-BASED APPROACH'

Responding to the outcry, the TSA has agreed its screeners will no longer conduct patdowns of children aged 12 or younger.

Pilots will be able to skip the new screening checks if they are employed by a U.S. carrier, are on airline business and in uniform. They will have to show their airline identification and a second form of identification, which will be checked against crew databases, the TSA said.

They could still be subject to random screening, the TSA said. The new rules do not apply to flight attendants.

"Establishing a secure system to positively identify and verify the employment status of uniformed pilots is a common sense, risk-based approach that allows TSA to dedicate more resources to unknown threats," Paul Onorato, president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations, said in a statement.

Earlier this week, two veteran pilots filed a lawsuit against the TSA and Department of Homeland Security arguing the patdowns and full-body scans violated protections against unwarranted searches afford by the U.S. Constitution.

"This new patdown is significantly more invasive and intrusive than the former patdown in that, among other things, the officer literally places his hands inside the traveler's pants," the lawsuit said.

BUSY HOLIDAY SEASON

A poll released by CBS News earlier this week found 81 percent of respondents believed airports should use the full body scanners.

But some opposed to the new screening have urged fliers to protest body scans on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, in hopes of jamming security lines with people requiring patdowns, which would wreck havoc with the system.

The TSA has defended the full-body scanners as safe despite concerns about radiation and the agency has said privacy safeguards have been instituted to ensure the images cannot be captured or sent.

Passengers now face law enforcement-style patdowns if they refuse the body scanner, or an anomaly is found on the scan or if someone sets off the traditional metal detectors where those machines are used. There are nearly 400 scanners in 68 airports.

The two Republicans expected to take the lead on aviation issues in the House of Representatives next year sent a letter to Pistole urging that the TSA use patdowns as a secondary check only if an alarm has sounded.

"The new patdown procedures are overly intrusive especially if a legitimate reason for the more probing search has not been established," said Representatives John Mica and Thomas Petri, senior members of the House Transportation Committee.

Mica, who is expected to chair the panel when Republicans officially take control of the House on Jan 5., has called for airports to drop TSA agents in favor of private contractors.

Two Democrats currently responsible for domestic security issues also asked the TSA to reconsider it policy.

"Coupled with its duty to provide aviation security to the traveling public, TSA also has a duty to ensure that its procedures have been reviewed by experts in privacy and civil rights for constitutionality," wrote representatives Bennie Thompson of Mississippi and Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas, who head the Homeland Security Committee and its Transportation and Infrastructure Protection Subcommittee, respectively. (Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Peter Cooney)