The largest union of airline pilots in the world is urging its members to boycott body imaging machines currently being rolled out in airports all over the globe, citing dangers of excessive exposure to harmful levels of radiation during the screening process.
The president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents 11,500 pilots, many of whom work for American Airlines, has urged members of the union to revolt against the devices.
Captain Dave Bates voiced the union’s concerns in a letter published by The Atlantic late last week.
Bates asks that members be aware “that there are ‘backscatter’ AIT devices now being deployed that produce ionizing radiation, which could be harmful to your health.”
The move follows the detention and suspension of an American pilot who refused to be scanned.
Captain Bates suggests that pilots refrain from being put through the scanners and if necessary opt for a pat down by TSA officials instead.
“We already experience significantly higher radiation exposure than most other occupations, and there is mounting evidence of higher-than-average cancer rates as a consequence.” Bates’ letter states.
Earlier in the year, scientists warned that the machines constitute a potential health risk, noting that the radiation given off by the devices has been dangerously underestimated and could lead to an increased risk of skin cancer.
Despite these fears, the blatant violation of privacy laws, and the consistent lies that the authorities have engaged in over capabilities of the machines, Janet Napolitano, head of the DHS, recently announced plans to expand the full-body scanner program even further.
In the U.S., travelers can refuse the body scanner and opt for the pat down, however, this option is not offered by the TSA, rather the traveler must declare that they wish to “opt out”.
A recent New York Times report describes the humiliating turn of events should airline passengers exercise this right, with individuals being singled out and prodded, probed and poked by TSA agents in front of everyone else queuing in the security lines.
New pat down procedures have recently been instituted by the TSA, allowing agents to use their fingers and the palms of their hands to feel around breasts and genitalia. Previously agents were instructed to brush the backs of their hands against these areas.
The APA president, Captain Bates, acknowledges how humiliating the new pat downs are in his letter:
“There is absolutely no denying that the enhanced pat-down is a demeaning experience. In my view, it is unacceptable to submit to one in public while wearing the uniform of a professional airline pilot. I recommend that all pilots insist that such screening is performed in an out-of-view area to protect their privacy and dignity.” he writes.
The new pat down technique has even been likened to “foreplay”. An American Civil Liberties Union spokesman has called the new security procedures a choice between a “virtual strip search” and a “grope.”
“Travelers are being asked to choose between being scanned ‘naked’ and exposed to radiation, or getting what people are describing as just a highly invasive search by hands of their entire bodies.” Chris Ott, a spokesman for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said.
People traveling out of the UK and other areas of Europe don’t even get the choice – they are forced to go through the scanner if asked and cannot refuse or they are banned from traveling. This policy seems to be slowly extending into the U.S., however, given recent reports from airport workers in El Paso, Texas who say that everyone is now being forced through the machines.
Privacy group Big Brother Watch has backed the APA’s advice to pilots, with director Alex Deane, noting “Scanners are dangerous. There’s a reason that the nurse stands behind a screen when you get an x-ray at hospital. Radiation is potentially harmful, even in small doses, and the regularity with which frequent flyers are exposed to potentially cancer-causing radiation.”
“If pilots aren’t going to be scanned, why should members of the public?” Deane added.
“This stance from a professional group, the world’s leading association of pilots, must shake the government out of its absurd position on scanners.”
The TSA has a regularly updated list of which American airports are using AIT full-body scanners here.
APA president Captain Bates’ letter in full:
In response to increased threats to civil aviation around the world, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has implemented the use of Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT) body scanners at some airport locations.
While I’m sure that each of us recognizes that the threats to our lives are real, the practice of airport security screening of airline pilots has spun out of control and does nothing to improve national security. It’s long past time that policymakers take the steps necessary to exempt commercial pilots from airport security screening and grant designated pilot access to SIDA utilizing either Crew Pass or biometric identification. As I recently wrote to the TSA Administrator:
“Our pilots are highly motivated partners in the effort to protect our nation’s security, with many of us serving as Federal Flight Deck Officers. We are all keenly aware that we may serve as the last line of defense against another terrorist attack on commercial aviation. Rather than being viewed as potential threats, we should be treated commensurate with the authority and responsibility that we are vested with as professional pilots.”
It is important to note that there are “backscatter” AIT devices now being deployed that produce ionizing radiation, which could be harmful to your health. Airline pilots in the United States already receive higher doses of radiation in their on-the-job environment than nearly every other category of worker in the United States, including nuclear power plant employees. As I also stated in my recent letter to the Administrator of the TSA:
“We are exposed to radiation every day on the job. For example, a typical Atlantic crossing during a solar flare can expose a pilot to radiation equivalent to 100 chest X-rays per hour. Requiring pilots to go through the AIT means additional radiation exposure. I share our pilots’ concerns about this additional radiation exposure and plan to recommend that our pilots refrain from going through the AIT. We already experience significantly higher radiation exposure than most other occupations, and there is mounting evidence of higher-than-average cancer rates as a consequence.”
It’s safe to say that most of the APA leadership shares my view that no pilot at American Airlines should subject themselves to the needless privacy invasion and potential health risks caused by the AIT body scanners. I therefore recommend that the pilots of American Airlines consider the following guidelines:
Use designated crew lines if available.
Politely decline AIT exposure and request alternative screening.
There is absolutely no denying that the enhanced pat-down is a demeaning experience. In my view, it is unacceptable to submit to one in public while wearing the uniform of a professional airline pilot. I recommend that all pilots insist that such screening is performed in an out-of-view area to protect their privacy and dignity.
If screening delays your arrival at the cockpit, do not cut corners that jeopardize the safety of the flight. Consummate professionalism and safety are always paramount.
Maintain composure and professionalism at all times and recognize that you are probably being videotaped.
If you feel that you have been treated with less than courtesy, respect and professionalism, please submit an observer report to APA. Please be sure to include the time, date, security checkpoint and name of the TSA employee who performed the screening. Avoid confrontation.
Your APA Board of Directors and National Officers are holding a conference call this week to discuss these issues and further guidance may be forthcoming.
While I cannot promise results tomorrow, I pledge to dedicate APA resources in the days and weeks to come to achieve direct access to SIDA for the pilots of American Airlines. In the meantime, I am confident that you will continue to exhibit your usual utmost professionalism as you safely operate and protect our nation’s air transport system.
Article written by Steve Watson
November 8, 2010