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Airport Security

WQXR Blog

FAA, Flight Attendants Square Off Over Music Devices on Planes

Friday, October 10, 2014

The nation's largest flight attendants union says it wants airline passengers to return to stowing cellphones and other electronics during takeoffs and landings.
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WQXR Blog

Senator Seeks Clarification of Carry-On Rules After Musician Booted From Plane

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The government should clarify federal rules about bringing musical instruments on to commercial flights as carry-on luggage, U.S. Sen. Jack Reed said.

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WQXR Blog

Video: Barred from Flight, Violinists Play Bach on Tarmac

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Two classical violinists said they were barred from boarding a US Airways flight on Monday because they refused to stow their violins in the hold at the request of gate staff.
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Top 5 @ 105

Top Five Flying Disasters for Musicians

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Anyone traveling with an instrument, especially an expensive one-of-a-kind type model, knows the perils of flight. Here are five devastating accounts of air travel.

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WQXR Blog

Musician Says Customs Agents at JFK Destroyed 13 Flutes

Thursday, January 02, 2014

A Canadian musician says customs agents at John F. Kennedy airport destroyed 13 of his handmade flutes, sparking outrage on the Internet this week.

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WQXR Blog

Video: Cellist Serenades Airplane Cabin at 39,000 Feet

Sunday, April 21, 2013

After several stories of run-ins involving cellists and airlines this year, now comes a more harmonious tale.

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The Brian Lehrer Show

Airport Security Changes

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Harvey Molotch, professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at New York University and the author of Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger, discusses new changes in security at the airport.

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WQXR Blog

Cellist's Bow is Damaged in Airport Mishap

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Alban Gerhardt, a noted cello soloist from Berlin, say his precious cello bow, valued at $20,000, was damaged by inspectors from the TSA at Dulles Airport

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The Brian Lehrer Show

Unsafe Security

Friday, September 21, 2012

Harvey Molotch, professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at New York University and the author of Against Security: How We Go Wrong at Airports, Subways, and Other Sites of Ambiguous Danger, argues many of our post-9/11 security precautions make us less safe.

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The Takeaway

Fixing TSA's Broken Airport Security System

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

In a recent essay for The Wall Street Journal, former Transportation Security Administration administrator Kip Hawley said the current airport security system in broken, and he offers suggestions to fix it. He argues that beyond making airline travel unpleasant for customers, TSA officials are focusing their efforts on the wrong kind of threats.

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Transportation Nation

Invasion of the Body Scanners: They’re Spreading, But Are They Safe and Effective?

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Transportation Security Administration volunteer demonstrates a full-body scanner at O'Hare International Airport on March 15, 2010 in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(Michael Grabell, ProPublica) This is part of our year-end series, looking at where things stand in each of our major investigations.

It has become routine for airline passengers across the country: Instead of walking through a metal detector, they now step into a body scanner, hold their arms over their heads and wait until a machine peers through their clothing to make sure they're not hiding explosives.

The Transportation Security Administration has deployed more than 500 of the body scanners, which they call "advanced imaging technology." And the agency plans to install them at nearly every security lane by 2014.

The TSA has insisted that the new scanners present "no health or safety concerns for any passenger." The agency has said they have been used around the world. And it has reiterated that the machines were evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, leading many to believe that one of the government's top safety regulators approved the technology.

But a ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation this year detailed how the TSA had glossed over cancer concerns about one kind of scanner that uses X-rays. In independent, peer-reviewed studies, radiation experts concluded that the X-ray scanner could cause six to 100 airline passengers each year to develop cancer. Outside the United States, few countries use X-ray imaging machines, also known as backscatters, in their airports. And the FDA has no authority to approve body scanners before they are sold because they are electronic products, not medical devices.

In 1998, an FDA advisory panel recommended a federal safety standard for the X-ray scanners. But the agency decided to go with a voluntary standard set by an industry group made up mostly of manufacturers and government agencies that wanted to use the machine.

In November, the European Union decided to prohibit X-ray body scanners in European airports. In the United States, members of Congress have pushed the TSA to conduct a new, independent safety review. And in Florida earlier this month, Broward County commissioners voted [6] to demand the TSA prove that the X-ray imagers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport are safe.

The TSA uses two types of body scanners:

  • The backscatter X-ray machine looks like two blue boxes and is used at major airports, such as Los Angeles, Chicago O'Hare and John F. Kennedy in New York.
  • The millimeter-wave machine looks like a round glass booth and is used at hubs such as Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco.

The X-ray scanner emits extremely low levels of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that strips electrons from atoms and damages DNA, potential leading to cancer. That risk, although small, has led some prominent scientists to ask why the TSA doesn't use just the millimeter-wave scanner, which uses low-powered electromagnetic waves that have not been linked to adverse health effects.

The TSA has said that keeping both technologies in play encourages the manufacturers to improve detection capability while lowering the cost for the taxpayer. The agency says the X-ray machine is safe because the radiation is equivalent to the amount passengers receive in two minutes of flying at altitude.

But ProPublica found some potential problems with the millimeter-wave scanner. Several other countries have reported a high rate of false alarms caused by innocuous things, such as folds in clothing, buttons and even sweat.

Other studies and a congressman briefed on classified tests have suggested the scanners could miss carefully concealed plastic explosives like the weapon used by the underwear bomber on Christmas Day 2009.

As Congress continues to debate the safety and quality of the body scanners, government investigators are set to release two important reports in the new year. The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security is evaluating how well the TSA is monitoring the radiation of the backscatters. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office is wrapping up an investigation of the machines' detection capability, the results of which are likely to be classified.

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Transportation Nation

Coffee, Tea or Cancer? Almost Half of Americans Oppose X-Ray Body Scanners

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Ontario International Airport, California. (photo by richmanwisco via flickr)

(by Michael Grabell, ProPublica) Even if X-ray body scanners would prevent terrorists from smuggling explosives onto planes, nearly half of Americans still oppose using them because they could cause a few people to eventually develop cancer, according to a new Harris Interactive poll conducted online for ProPublica.

Slightly more than third of Americans supported using the scanners, while almost a fifth were unsure.

The Transportation Security Administration plans to install body scanners, which can detect explosives and other objects hidden under clothing, at nearly every airport security lane in the country by the end of 2014. It's the biggest change to airport security since metal detectors were introduced more than 35 years ago.

The scanners have long faced vocal opposition. Privacy advocates have decried them as a "virtual strip search" because the raw images show genitalia, breasts and buttocks – a concern the TSA addressed by requiring software that makes the images less graphic. But in addition to privacy objections, scientists and some lawmakers oppose one type of scanner because it uses X-rays, which damage DNA and could potentially lead to a few additional cancer cases among the 100 million travelers who fly every year. They say an alternative technology, which uses radio frequency waves, is safer.

Some travelers like Kathy Blomker, a breast cancer survivor from Madison, Wis., have decided to forgo the machines altogether and opt for a physical pat-down instead. "I've had so much radiation that I don't want to subject myself to radiation that I can avoid," she said. "I decided I'm just not ever going to go through one of those machines again. It's just too risky."

After ProPublica published an investigation, reported in conjunction with PBS NewsHour, showing that the X-ray scanners had evaded rigorous safety evaluations, the head of the TSA told Senator Susan Collins that his agency would conduct a new independent safety study. He subsequently backed off that promise, prompting the senator to write the TSA pressing the agency to go ahead with the study and asking it to post larger signs alerting pregnant women that they have the option to have a physical pat-down instead of going through the X-ray scanners.

The TSA has repeatedly touted a series of polls showing strong public support for the scanners. But those polls and surveys – conducted by Gallup, The Wall Street Journal and various travel sites – largely dealt with the privacy issue.

Only one of those polls – by CBS News – asked specifically about X-ray body scanners, finding that 81 percent of Americans thought that such X-ray scanners should be used in airports. But that poll – like all the others – did not mention the risk of cancer.

When confronted with the cancer-terrorism trade-off, however, Americans took a much more negative view of the scanners.

Harris Interactive surveyed 2,198 Americans between Dec. 2 and Dec. 6. (Full survey methodology can be found here.) The international polling firm asked, "If a security scanner existed which would significantly help in preventing terrorists from boarding a plane with powder, plastic, or liquid explosives, do you think the TSA should still use it even if it could cause perhaps six of the 100 million passengers who fly each year to eventually develop cancer"

Forty-six percent said the TSA shouldn't use it, 36 percent said it should, and 18 percent weren't sure.

Asked to comment, TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy said in a statement that the X-Ray scanners are "well within national standards."

"TSA’s top priority is the safety of the traveling public and the use of advanced imaging technology is critical to the detection of both metallic and non-metallic threats," he said. "All results from independent evaluations confirm that these machines are safe for all passengers."

The number of potential cancer cases used in the poll comes from a peer-reviewed research paper written by a radiology and epidemiology professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and posted on the TSA's website.

The professor, Rebecca Smith-Bindman, concluded that 'there is no significant threat of radiation from the scans.' But she estimated that among the 750 million security checks of 100 million airline passengers per year, six cancers could result from the X-ray scans. She cautioned that the increase was small considering that the same 100 million people would develop 40 million cancers over the course of their lifetimes.

Another study by David Brenner, director of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, estimated that as airlines approach a billion boardings per year in the United States, 100 additional cancers per year could result from the scanners.

The TSA uses two types of body scanners to screen travelers for nonmetallic explosives. In the X-ray machine, known as a backscatter, a passenger stands between two large blue boxes and is scanned with an extremely low level of ionizing radiation, a form of energy which strips electrons from atoms and can damage DNA, leading to cancer. In the millimeter-wave machine, a passenger stands inside a round glass booth and is scanned with low-energy electromagnetic waves which don't strip electrons from atoms and have not been linked to cancer.

There is a great deal of uncertainty when performing cancer risk assessments from the very low levels of radiation that the backscatters emit. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration put the risk of a fatal cancer from the machines at one in 400 million. The U.K. Health Protection Agency has put it at one in 166 million.

Some experts say such estimates of population risk create a distorted picture of the danger because humans are constantly exposed to background radiation and already accept risks that increase exposure, such as flying on a plane at cruising altitude.

In the authoritative study on the health risks of low levels of radiation, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the risk of cancer increases with radiation exposure and that there is no level of radiation at which the risk is zero.

Given that risk, Brenner and some in Congress have argued that the TSA should forgo in the X-ray scanners in favor of the millimeter-wave machine.

European officials have gone so far as to prohibit the X-ray body scanners, leaving the millimeter-wave scanner as the only option. But some countries, including Germany, have reported a high rate of false alarms with the millimeter-wave machines.

The TSA has said that keeping two technologies in play creates competition, encouraging the manufacturers of both technologies to improve the detection capabilities, efficiency and cost of the scanners.

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Transportation Nation

Rep. Mica Goes After TSA on Private Security Screeners

Friday, June 03, 2011

(Todd Zwillich -- Washington, D.C.) House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Rep. John Mica (R-Fl.) took a swing at the Obama Administration Friday for refusing to privatize security screening at more U.S. airports.

Mica released a lengthy report from his committee's investigators concluding that taxpayers could save $1 billion per year if 35 of the largest airports moved to private screening. That's a direct response to a January decision by Transportation Security Administration head John Pistole to reject privatization bids from five airports. Pistole also said he wouldn't expand the program further since privatized screening wasn't saving taxpayers any money.

The decision rankled Mica, who since the start of the year has railed on the TSA to slim down. "TSA has become a bloated bureaucracy that is too focused on managing its personnel and protecting its turf," he said. "This agency must get out of the human resources business."

Airports were legally allowed to opt out of TSA screening beginning in 2003. But private security contractors that took over had to meet federal screening and oversight standards in order to replace TSA screeners. Today 16 airports have opted for private security contractors. But Pistole got Mica's back up in January when he denied applications from five more. Republicans accused Pistole and Homeland Security officials of bowing to union pressure to suspend the program.

Officials have denied that union pressure was the reason, saying it is cost projections and security concerns that are keeping them from expanding the privatization program.

Friday's report compares screening costs at LAX, which uses TSA screeners, with the cost of private screening at San Francisco's SFO airport. It found that LAX screeners cost an average of $41,208 per year compared with $39,021 at SFO. Perhaps more to the point, it concludes that private screening at SFO costs $2.42 per passenger versus $4.22 per passenger at LAX.

"If we applied those findings to the nation's top 35 airports, we could save over $1 billion over five years," Mica told reporters at press conference on Capitol Hill Friday.

TSA hit back, saying via a spokesperson that it was "unclear" how they did their math on cost estimates. The agency's own estimates say private screening is more expensive. Most recently a GAO report in March of this year pegged private screening as 3 percent more expensive than government-run security.

TSA spokesperson Nicholas Kimball said security was a bigger factor than cost in Pistole's decision to back off private screening at airports.

"While cost is an important factor...Administrator Pistole’s primary consideration is security," Kimball wrote to Transportation Nation in an email. "It is critical that TSA retains its ability to operate as a flexible nationwide security network. TSA’s capacity to push out intelligence information to our frontline workforce and quickly change procedures based on threat and intelligence is paramount to effective security.  Further expansion of privatized screening will increase the complexity of this process," he wrote.

Kimball added that the agency believes private and TSA screeners provide "comparable" security.

That's not good enough for Mica. He said he intends to try and force TSA's hand on the issue. Part of his strategy was on display this week on the House floor. Mica narrowly succeeded in passing an amendment on a Homeland Security spending bill limiting by law the amount of money TSA can spend for screener personnel, salaries and benefits.

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Transportation Nation

First Lawsuits Filed Against TSA Patdowns

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A TSA Agent using a full body X-Ray scanner. Image: Getty Images

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) It's official, the lawsuits are coming! A Colorado attorney has filed suit against the TSA, asking a Federal judge to order  an end to existing airport screening procedures.

AP reports Gary Fielder brought the case more than a month after his family, including two young children, underwent a TSA patdown.

Fielder's lawsuit claimed the patdowns were "disgusting, unconscionable, sexual in nature" and in violation of the Constitution's protections against unreasonable searches. He said subjecting U.S. citizens to the new procedures is wrong because no American has been accused of threatening commercial airliners with explosives.

Nationally, the AP also notes, at least two other lawsuits have been filed protesting the current screening procedures.

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It's A Free Blog

This Time, I'm Pro Pat-Down

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Since 9/11, I have been one of those who has, almost always, argued for liberty over security. This is one instance, however, where we have to give up a little freedom in the interest of greater security.

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Transportation Nation

TN Moving Stories: Christie Likes #7 Extension Idea, and London's Double Decker Bus Gets Revamped

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

NJ Governor Christie says extending the #7 subway across the Hudson is “a much better idea” than the ARC tunnel, but he hasn't yet spoken to Mayor Bloomberg about it. (AP via New York Times)

Traffic fatalities in NYC are at an all-time low, but pedestrians make up the majority of those killed. (NY1)

NYC transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is one of Esquire Magazine's "15 Genuises Who Give Us Hope."

Talk about paving roads with good intentions: as BART extends to San Jose, "construction crews plan to use at least 250,000 old tires, ground up into 3-inch chunks and laid under large sections of the tracks, to act as shock absorbers, reducing vibration and noise along the route." (San Jose Mercury News)

London's iconic bus--the Routemaster--is getting updated. "The new bus has three doors: joining the single rear entrance are a front and a side door. There are also two staircases, solving a major congestion problem, and a source of missed stops on full buses." (Wired - Autopia)

Do electric cars spell cash or calamity for utility companies? "Plugged into a socket, the Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts can draw as much energy from the grid as a small house." (The Takeaway)

NYC deputy mayor Steven Goldsmith is on today's Brian Lehrer Show.

With all the news about new TSA screening procedures, the Washington Post has assembled a good, sober guide of what to actually expect at the airport.  This Saturday Night Live video takes a more...whimsical approach:

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The Takeaway

Top of the Hour: Your Take on TSA Security Measures, Morning Headlines

Monday, November 22, 2010

Very few people seem to be reacting well to the TSA's new security measures (full-body scans and thorough pat-downs), and that includes you. 

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The Takeaway

Top of the Hour: New Scanners and Pat-Downs, Morning Headlines

Friday, November 19, 2010

How do you feel about the new full-body scanners and pat-downs at airport security? Some say it's worth the safety, while others feel a line is being crossed into unnecessary intrusiveness. 

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The Takeaway

Sec. Napolitano: Holiday Travel Comes With More Pat Downs

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Transportation Security Administration has begun more thorough pat-downs at airport security checkpoints just weeks before holidays' heavy travel season. Many passengers have already complained of inappropriate contact and others are upset with the intimacy of the search. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano explains the new search procedures and the full-body scanning machines that have been set up in airports. She and the TSA are asking passengers to be patient and cooperate.

"The vast majority of the traveling public understands that this is a safety and security measure," Napolitano said. Read a full transcript

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Transportation Nation

Janet Napolitano on Airport Full-Body X-Ray Scanners

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A TSA Agent viewing images from a full body X-Ray scanner. Image: Getty Images

(Alex Goldmark, Transportation Nation) Opposition from travelers is mounting to new security screening equipment that uses full-body x-ray technology at airports ever since it surfaced that thousands of images of travelers were being saved, and some of them surfaced online.

Our partner, The Takeaway, will be speaking with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano tomorrow morning. It's sure to come up. For now they're asking you if this new technology is causing you to rethink your travel holiday travel plans.  Here are some of the responses they've gotten so far:

-- "If it means my family and I can fly more safely, I am all for it." via Facebook, Rusty Roy, Groveport, Ohio.
-- "Do I agree with them? Not so much. Would I vote against them? Yes. But do I have the luxury of circumventing them by not flying at all? No," via Facebook, Cristy Moran, Miami Fla.
-- "Yes. No cold showers that morning. :))" via text msg from Pontiac, Mich.

Read more comments here.

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