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Pilot’s refusal to undergo full body scan ignites debate


A pilot for ExpressJet Airlines is in danger of losing his job for refusing to go through a body scan at Memphis International Airport on his way to work.

Michael Roberts says his employment with the Texas-based carrier is “on hold” after he declined to go through an Advanced Imaging Technology system, a requirement that pilots say should not be applied to crew members.

Roberts has been commuting to his work in Houston for four and a half years and had never been required to undergo a body scan until last weekend. The pilot had passed through a metal detector and was loading his bags onto the x-ray belt when he was asked to go through the body scan machine, which was introduced at the airport this summer.

He declined and refused to be frisked, the only alternative to body scans. Roberts was subsequently barred from entering the secured area of the terminal building and detained until an investigator from the Transportation Security Administration arrived.

The pilot was released after the TSA investigator confirmed he had refused the pat-down option to the body scan, and if he’d “had words” with any of the TSA screeners.

“He said he wanted to know whether there had been ‘any exchange of words.’ I told him that yes, we spoke,” according to an account Roberts wrote on a pilot’s forum. “He then turned to the crowd of officers and asked whether I had been abusive toward any of them… I didn’t hear what they said in reply, but he returned and finally told me I was free to leave the airport.”

Roberts is studying his options and looking for an attorney to help him with his predicament.

The Air Line Pilots Association and ExpressJet, which is talks with shareholders about a merger with SkyWest, have not issued a statement on the incident.

TSA spokeswoman Sarah Horowitz told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that pilots are not exempt from the screening given to passengers. “Anyone who refuses screening will be denied access to the secure area,” she said.

TSA began adding body scanners in airports nationwide despite concerns about whether the machines violate passenger rights and pose health hazards. The enhanced security at airports followed an attempt by a Nigerian man to blow up a Northwest Airlines plane bound for Detroit on Christmas Day last year using explosives hidden in his underwear.

Pilots on the Flyertalk forum were mostly supportive of Roberts’ decision not to undergo a body scan as well as a pat-down, and a number emphatically pledged to support his cause.

They argued the same procedures to screen travelers should not be applied to pilots, who by the nature of their job have passed additional security and mental evaluation.

“The lunacy of screening pilots who, if they chose, could bring down their aircraft whenever they wanted, is obvious to everyone,” PTravel wrote.

Pilots also cited inconsistencies in the way TSA implements its rules, and reported incidents about the agency’s screeners, who critics say need better training about civil liberties as well as security procedures. They renewed calls for a crew pass.

“It is OK for rampers, catering, and CS agents to just bypass security… but we are the threats,” one pilot said on the ExpressJet forum.

However, others asked Roberts, “If you started flying professionally in the post 9/11 world, how could you not see this coming?”

“The issue is that you do not have a constitutional right to fly in or on a commercial airliner,” another added. “If you don’t believe in being searched then you have every right not to fly.”

Roberts was part of a group of pilots who wrote the ExpressJet officials this summer to “express our disapproval and intentions regarding the TSA’s use of Whole Body Imaging (WBI) systems at airport security screening checkpoints for routine passenger/crewmember screening.”

The group raised concerns that the imaging systems violate the Fourth Amendment, the Privacy Act and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The concerns echo those of a 27,000-member group called, which has also cited health hazards. The Inter-Agency Committee on Radiation Safety has recommended that pregnant women and children not be scanned, and that officials explain health risks of “cancer-causing” radiation from machines.

TSA says in its website that “radiation doses are well below those specified by the American National Standards Institute.”

The agency adds that it protects passenger privacy “through the anonymity of the image. The image cannot be stored, transmitted or printed, and is deleted immediately once viewed. Additionally, advanced imaging technology screening is optional to all passengers.”

The American Civil Liberties Union has cited Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan’s experience at a British airport.

Despite rules that required images to be immediately discarded, the star’s body scan was printed out apparently by airline personnel, who asked the actor to autograph the images while at the airport.

In May, a TSA employee at Miami International Airport was arrested for attacking a co-worker who teased him about the size of his genitals after he walked through a body scanner.


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