The Transportation Security Administration has quietly adopted new "enhanced" pat-down searches for screening passengers at U.S. airports, a response to weaknesses in airport security.
The TSA on Thursday began using a "universal pat-down" procedure that includes "enhanced security measures" to replace several pat-down tactics used in the past by TSA screeners that are presumably less invasive.
The TSA is standardizing its physical search procedure rather than allow screeners to choose among types of searches to reduce the chance of poor decisions at crucial security checkpoints.
"The UPD [universal pat-down] lessens the cognitive burden for our officers and reduces the possibility for confusion with passengers and employees as well," the agency said.
TSA officials declined to detail the new universal procedure or the previous pat-down tactics, but the industry is bracing for passenger unhappiness about more invasive searches.
An airport trade group has told its members that TSA screeners will be allowed to use the front of their hands, instead of just the backs of hands, to search passengers if a previous screening indicated the presence of explosives, Bloomberg News reported, based on a "security notice" distributed by the Airports Council International-North America.
The TSA is briefing local law enforcement agencies "in case they are notified that a passenger believes a [TSA security screener] has subjected them to an abnormal screening practice," according to the notice.
The TSA said the standardized pat-down process comes in response to a 2015 undercover test of airport security measures by the Department of Homeland Security.
The results of the 2015 test are classified but John Roth, the inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional committee that the study "found layers of security simply missing." According to news reports, the test found that the screening procedures failed to detect handguns and other weapons.
The pat-down searches will be used on passengers who decline to go through the full-body screening machine used at most major U.S. airports or for those travelers who trigger a warning from the machine. TSA officers can also use a pat-down search on random travelers.
Passengers have the right to request a private pat-down screening and ask to be accompanied by a companion of their choice.