WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. authorities will reconsider airline passenger screening procedures that have caused a public uproar on the eve of the busy holiday travel season, the top transport security official said on Monday.
“We’re going to look at how can we do the most effective screening in the least invasive way knowing that there’s always a trade-off between security and privacy,” Transportation Security Administrator John Pistole told NBC’s “Today” show.
“What I’m doing is going back and looking at, are there less invasive ways of doing the same type of screening?” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
Coming amid public and political pressure, Pistole’s comments appeared to row back from a Sunday interview in which he said there were no plans to scale back procedures — which include patdowns of passengers’ groins and chests — that travelers have criticized as invasive and a violation of privacy rights.
But while making the rounds on U.S. morning television shows, he also cautioned against expectations for immediate change and defended the effectiveness of current methods.
“In the short-term, there will not be any changes,” Pistole said on CNN.
The screening methods that have irked passengers and lawmakers in Congress rely on highly revealing full-body imaging scanners and physical patdowns for travelers who choose to opt out of the scans.
Airlines expect 24 million people to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday period. Airlines say they have passed along passenger concerns to TSA.
After saying, “No, we’re not changing the policies” in a Sunday television interview, Pistole issued a statement hours later saying the TSA was constantly evaluating ways to adjust its screening methods.
Pistole said on Monday that security officials would consult government investigators who penetrated the TSA’s previous screening cordon to determine how methods might change and still protect against a passenger who poses a security threat.
Pistole said he himself has undergone both the scans and the patdowns and defended both.
“I felt that it was thorough,” he said of the patdown. “I felt it was doing exactly what it’s designed to do — to try to detect somebody who’s trying to kill hundreds of people on an airplane, “ he told MSNBC.
TSA estimates that fewer than 2 percent of the 2 million passengers screened daily, or 40,000, are given the patdowns.
With pilots allowed to carry guns and cockpits hardened against hijacking threats after the 2001 hijack attacks on New York and Washington, screening in recent years has focused on sophisticated explosives that are hard to detect.
Authorities last month thwarted the bombing of U.S.-bound air cargo flights. A year ago, they prevented a Christmas Day attempt a passenger’s attempt to blow up a flight to Detroit with a bomb hidden in his underwear. The Yemen-based group al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for both plots.
Pistole on Monday issued a public travel message being made available to airports nationwide to play on their public announcement systems during the holiday travel season to make sure passengers are prepared for the new screening procedures.
“We appreciate your patience as we all work together to keep travel safe,” he says in the brief message that also thanks travelers for their continued support.
TSA said the announcement was one of a series of steps, including posters at airports and messages to its workers, on “how to carry out these procedures in the most professional and responsible manner.”
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs stressed the importance of protecting in “minimally invasive” ways but added that security measures need to reflect the nature of the threat.
“That is a balance we will continue to search for,” he said
“The nature of whatever the threat is today is going to be different in three to six months,” Gibbs said. “We have to continue to evolve and meet the threat that is out there.”
Additional reporting by Alister Bull, John Crawley. Jeremy Pelofsky and James Vicini; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Cynthia Osterman