Geekamama


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Toddlers versus the TSA, redux: Well, that was anticlimactic

Last week I wrote about my jitters around bringing a toddler through the security lines at Sea-Tac airport.  I even called the TSA to try to assuage my concerns.

As often is the case, my worries turned out to be fruitless.  Going through security was easy, and frankly, the least troublesome part of our flight.

We arrived at the airport about two hours ahead of our 7:30 p.m. scheduled departure.  Our carry-on count: two backpacks, one diaper bag, one car seat in carrying bag, and one Kiddo-carting stroller.  I estimated 40 people in line ahead of us at the security checkpoint we initially chose, but a helpful TSA agent pointed us to another checkpoint that had no lines at all.  By the time we got there, there were about 20 people in line ahead of us, including several families with small children.  Excellent, I thought; I can watch what happens with the other families before we have to face it ourselves.

What actually happened with them was a whole lot of nothing.  In fact, no one in our line got pulled for secondary screening.  Even the occasional person who had to step back through the metal detector was passed along eventually.

Metal detectors?  Wait, weren’t they supposed to have been removed and replaced with the body scanners?  Nope.  Once again, I’d led internet hype mislead me.  The body scanners and pat-downs are only brought into play when a person fails to clear the metal detector.  And in the entire time that we were watching the people ahead of us, or going through the line ourselves with all our baggage, or waiting for my backpack to clear a hand search, or packing up afterward, not one person was pulled for secondary screening.

I was almost convinced that the machines weren’t even turned on–that they were set up to let people get used to their presence, but not yet functioning.  We had to walk past two other screening areas on our way to our gate, and at each one I craned my neck, hoping in vain to see the AIT in action.  Finally, at the third security area, we saw a single adult male standing in the body scanner.  That was it. 

And considering what else we had to go through that night to make it to California–snowy roads, slow service in the food court, a mechanical delay, having to unload off the first plane and wait for a second plane to arrive, having to board 150-plus people in less than 20 minutes to avoid the flight being canceled–getting through security was a breeze!  Even with a toddler.

Those people setting up web sites asking whether you “posed for porn” or “got groped” are tweaking public perception by leaving out the option most likely to happen: neither of the above.  But no one gets web hits or ad revenue off stories of systems working correctly. On the other hand, it’s great gossip to pass along links of things that outrage us!  Here’s the problem with doing so (and I’m guilty of this myself): it creates the impression that the outrageous occurrences are more widespread than they actually are.  There’s so much fear and misinformation flying around that it’s a wonder there’s room for the actual planes.

I’m not thrilled that there’s a chance I may have to deal with a full-body scan or pat-down at some point in the future.  But now that I’ve seen firsthand what’s actually happening at the security checkpoints, I’m no longer stressing out about it.

By the way, here are a couple direct-from-the-horse’s-mouth blog posts about how to make your holiday travel go more smoothly (and reduce the chance of getting pulled for secondary screening):

http://blog.tsa.gov/2010/11/hey-turkey-check-out-our-holiday-travel.html

http://blog.tsa.gov/2010/11/tsa-myth-or-fact-leaked-images.html

Kiddo watches the airport activity during preboarding

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Toddlers versus the TSA

Update: I’ve noticed I’m getting some hits from web searches on this topic.  Thanks for visiting!  Our trip is Sunday evening, November 21.  I’ll take some notes on what happens when our family goes through the security lines, and I’ll try to write up a good detailed description of how extensive the toddler pat-down is (and the adult one too, if I end up getting that.)  I’ll try to have the new post up by Monday afternoon, depending on how much computer access I get.


 

Next Sunday afternoon, we’re flying to visit family for Thanksgiving week, departing via Seattle-Tacoma International.  Sea-Tac is one of the many airports that has installed full-body scanners at the security checkpoint.  I’m starting to get a little anxious about this.  It’s not the privacy issue at all; it’s the question of how it’s going to work with a toddler.

 

I’m sure I’m just letting myself get paranoid about it, but here’s the scenario that’s playing in my mind:

We get to the airport and check in.  Knowing us, we’re already a little stressed and running slightly behind schedule.  We go to security and get into the Family line.  Since it’s holiday time, the line is long.  Kiddo is getting antsy and doesn’t want to be held, but doesn’t want to hold someone’s hand while standing.  I’m already juggling too many carry-on bags and having a hard time keeping him mellow.  At last we get to the front of the line, only to be confronted with the full-body image scanners…

The problem I’m mentally crashing into is that everything I’ve been able to find (which isn’t much) about how the scanning process works says that the person being scanned has to step into the scanner and stand still while the image is being processed and analyzed.  It can take up to 15 seconds for this to happen.

Fifteen seconds doesn’t sound like much, does it?  For a toddler, it can be an eternity!

…Husband and I pass Kiddo back and forth while we empty our pockets.  He takes Kiddo while I walk into the scanner, pause for the imaging, and exit.  Then it’s Kiddo’s turn.  He balks.  He squirms.  Then he sees me on the other side and sprints through.  The TSA agent turns to me apologetically and says, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but we need him to stand there for a few seconds.”  I guide Kiddo back into the scanner.  Kiddo stays for a moment, fidgeting, then runs back out and clings to me.  The line behind us is getting longer and the waiting travelers grumpier…

I called the TSA to get some clarification.  It only took a few minutes to get through to a real person (most of that due to me mis-navigating the menu) and the agent I spoke to was nice, but just repeated the same information I’d found elsewhere: They will not separate me from my child.  I can opt for a pat-down if I don’t want to go through the screener.  The agents are trained to work with children.  She did tell me that the pat-down for children is less invasive than it is for an older person, but right after that there was a burst of static and the call got cut off.  I should have called back, but I didn’t have the heart to do so.

…At this point, we have to go with the pat-down.  But by now Kiddo’s had enough.  He just wants Mommy to hold him.  He doesn’t want someone else taking him, even if I’m standing right there, and he doesn’t want anyone touching him.  Tension rises.  Kiddo fusses.  I stress.

Flying with a toddler is going to be challenging enough.  Logically I know that it’ll be just a couple of minutes and then it will be behind us, but not being able to plan for what’s going to happen is the part that’s causing me the most worry.  I feel a little silly, because in the travels with Kiddo that we’ve done so far, the TSA agents have been helpful and respectful, and I don’t know why I’m worried that things will be different on this trip.

In the meantime, my husband has declared the issue moot.  We’re not going to expose our son to more radiation than necessary, he says; we’ll opt for the pat-down for him right off the bat.  It does give me one less thing to worry about, but frankly, I never thought I’d long for the days when “all” we had to do was take off our shoes and walk through the metal detector.  I don’t want to be THAT MOM whose kid is screaming and putting everyone else on edge as well.

At any rate, I’ll report back next week on how things went, and we can all have a good chuckle at my still-relatively-new-mommy paranoia.  Right?  Right.