A top official for the Transportation Security Administration said Wednesday the agency is considering changes in its screening techniques, including "risk-based security" procedures that will rank populations of air passengers as more or less potentially dangerous.
"There are probably people that we have to take a closer look at than others," said Scott Johnson, the TSA field operations manager.
But in a discussion with Alaska groups seeking screening changes for passengers who have experienced sexual trauma, health issues or special needs, Johnson promised only that the agency will listen to suggestions and review its techniques.
"For all of us out there at TSA, we feel the risk is still out there, a threat we're still concerned about." Johnson said.
Johnson spoke after a round table discussion hosted by U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. The session was prompted in part by the experience of an Alaska state lawmaker, Rep. Sharon Cissna.
Cissna is a cancer survivor who has undergone a mastectomy. The Anchorage Democrat in February underwent a full-body scan at Seattle's airport but was singled out for a pat-down search. She refused to be patted down and rode a ferry home instead of flying.
Cissna said the TSA is trying to get the message out that it's listening to suggestions but she will not be satisfied until officers are no longer groping airline passengers, including children.
"It's a paradigm shift that has gone on here, where suddenly it's all right to teach kids that it's all right to have strangers touching them in the most personal places," she said.
Cissna has aligned herself with legislators in other states who have protested TSA screening. She said she continues to hear from people across the country who feel harassed, molested or sidelined but have chosen not to make their private anguish public.
Flying was dangerous in the 1960s, she said, because of hijackings. She said she's frustrated that the TSA with its significant resources has not developed other techniques for keeping Americans safe.
"Those kinds of tests seem like things that need to have been thought of long before now," she said. "So I have big questions."
Johnson said Cissna's experience has been discussed by field officers but procedures did not change because of it.
One measure available to people wanting privacy is a card, available from the TSA website, that passengers can carry and hand to TSA officers outlining their situation, he said. That avoids the discomfort of discussing a personal issue, he said.
"They still have to go through the same screening, but they do have rights for private screening right from the start, if they want to into a private room," he said.
Begich said he was encouraged that TSA officials were willing to listen to concerns in Alaska, where flying is necessary to cover the vast distances between communities, many of which are off the road system. He is optimistic change is coming.
"This whole idea of risk assessment ... trying to determine what's high risk, what's a low risk, how they manage that, I think was a good statement and a new policy that they have," he said.
A Coast Guardsman with a security clearance or World War II veterans flying to a special event would fit into a low risk category, he said, and it's not profiling.
"Profiling is, here's a class of people, this is who we look at," Begich said. "No other information. In this situation, risk assessment is by a variety of things."
Begich said he's also encouraged by more sophisticated equipment on the horizon for the TSA, such as scanners that do not show passengers' actual bodies.