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Editorial: TSA’s Bumpy Ride

Most American travelers long ago resigned themselves to intrusive searches and scans at this nation’s airports. They understand that the inconvenience is an infinitesimal price to pay for the safe flights they enjoy. So they dutifully shuffle, beltless and shoeless, through the security system.

With one exception: Some balked at submitting to full-body scanners that showed graphic body images to Transportation Security Administration agents in closed rooms.

These travelers didn’t believe TSA’s promises that all of the images were immediately erased and could not be stored for future ogling. They fretted, as did some scientists, that the machines could go haywire and expose people to more radiation than the tiny dose required for the scan. They bought into the notion that these scans were an invasion of privacy — a “virtual strip search,” some anxious advocates fretted.

The complainers now can relax. The TSA is pulling those scanners from the nation’s airports by summer.

No, this wasn’t TSA’s choice. Last year, Congress banned revealing body images in airport security screenings, and the scanner’s manufacturer couldn’t meet a deadline to upgrade its technology to abide by the new standards.

Still, this is a smart move because better machines — millimeter wave body-imaging scanners — are already in use. These machines don’t use X-rays and don’t show detailed images of what’s under a passenger’s clothing. They display a generic, almost cartoonlike outline of each passenger, with possible threats highlighted. If there’s anything suspicious, an orange square highlights the area on the traveler’s body. Best of all, passengers can see everything the officer sees. No surprises, no detailed images beamed to remote locations.

We’re told that the new machines are as sensitive to potential dangers as were the earlier models. There also should be less lag time while agents in a closed room pore over security images. So security lines should move faster.

Over the past couple of years, TSA spokesman Luis Casanova tells us, the agency has been “moving away from one-size-fits-all screening. We’re trying to expedite those who are low-risk, 12 and under or 75 and over. History and intelligence tell us they pose very little risk to transportation security.”

That said, we can’t stress too much that the whole point of airport security is to enhance the flying experience not by pampering travelers, but by keeping flights safe from saboteurs. The agency’s Job One is making sure your plane — and you — reach your destination uneventfully so you can get on with your life.

So the next time you hear someone carp about TSA procedures, ask him or her how many times the agency, formed 70 days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has failed at that mission.

Intelligent travelers accept that they must sacrifice privacy for security. Many of them routinely, and sincerely, thank TSA agents for keeping them safe.

Even in post-9/11 America, however, there are limits to what some people will tolerate. TSA bumped up against one of those limits. We trust that the new scanners will keep air travel every bit as secure as TSA has kept it for more than 11 years.

Chicago Tribune