Two pilot unions urged members in the last week to avoid security screening by the full body scanners being deployed at airports across the country. They are concerned about the amount of radiation the advanced imaging technology machines emit and the cumulative effects on pilots.
In a Nov. 8 letter to members, the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, which represents 5,200 US Airways pilots, warns the Transportation Security Administration "has offered no credible specifications for the radiation emitted by these machines. As pilots, we are exposed to more radiation as a function of our normal duties than nearly every other category of worker in the United States. . . . USAPA has determined that frequent exposure to TSA-operated scanner devices may subject pilots to significant health risks."
A similar letter from the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing 11,500 pilots with American Airlines, was obtained by The Atlantic, Nextgov's sister publication. It advises members that the backscatter screening devices now being deployed could be "harmful to your health." The letter also reminds pilots they are exposed to more radiation than most other workers, including those at nuclear power plants. "There is mounting evidence of higher-than-average cancer rates as a consequence," the letter noted.
Both letters advised pilots to seek other screening methods, such as standard magnetometer devices, or a pat-down by a Transportation Security Administration officer. Under enhanced pat-downs, screeners examine more of the person's body.
While recommending the pat-downs as an alternative to the AIT scanners, both unions described them as demeaning and intrusive. USAPA recounted the experience of one US Airways pilot who "experienced a frisking that . . . left him unable to function as a crew member."
Thomas Anthony, director of the University of Southern California's aviation safety and security program in Los Angeles, said, "The [union's] concern is warranted." TSA has a responsibility to demonstrate the safety of the technology for pilots' repeated exposure before requiring them to submit to it, he said.
Some familiar with the technology question whether it has been thoroughly researched. Issues related to the basic science have not been addressed, said Peter Rez, a professor of physics at Arizona State University in Tempe. His calculations indicate that the dose, although very low, is still higher than what the government claims and "the standards to which they adhere are kind of sloppy."
"[They] looked at it and never checked it very thoroughly," Rez surmised. He speculated that in the aftermath of the thwarted Christmas Day 2009 attack aboard Northwest Airlines Flight 253, when a passenger linked to al Qaeda
tried to set off plastic explosives sewn into his underwear, federal officials acted too quickly in deciding to deploy the machines.
"It's a whole new type of radiation that hasn't been thoroughly researched," added David Mackett, president of the Airline Pilots Security Alliance, a nonpartisan organization that provides information on aviation security measures.
TSA did not return a phone call seeking comment. Officials at the Food and Drug Administration and TSA, however, did describe the potential health effects from radiation as minuscule in a letter last month to the White House Office of Science and Technology. The letter was made available by a public relations firm representing Rapiscan Systems, the company that makes the screening devices.
Mackett said full-body scanners are "completely ineffective until they are in every lane," at the checkpoints, which will take years. The unions advised members to choose screening lanes not yet equipped with the new machines. According to Mackett, terrorists will do the same thing, thereby bypassing any enhanced security the machines might provide.
"We don't feel requiring [pilots] to be strip searched or radiated is an acceptable choice," he said. "Especially when it's not effective."
Mackett noted that attacks have been thwarted not by technology, but by people onboard aircraft. "We are still largely flying defenseless airplanes across the country," he said.