WASHINGTON - Turban-wearers have won the day.
Beginning Oct. 27, airport screeners will no longer "pat down" people wearing religious head coverings - if the traveler agrees to undergo alternative security measures. Officials said such alternatives might include walking through a machine that detects explosive chemicals. Or wearers could agree to pat down their own turban, and then have their hands swabbed with a cloth that is tested for chemical traces.
"It's a creative solution that meets national security interests without requiring a turban to be touched in an unwelcome way," said Amardeep Singh, executive director of the New York-based Sikh Coalition, a national advocacy group.
The compromise between advocacy groups representing Sikhs and Muslims and the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees the nation's 43,000 airport screeners, was described by all parties yesterday as mutually satisfactory.
Sikhs and some Muslim groups had balked at an Aug. 4 TSA directive advising screeners to scrutinize anyone wearing a head covering or bulky clothes that might hide explosives - be it a turban, baseball cap or beret. The directive was prompted by growing concerns about improvised explosive devices being smuggled aboard aircraft.
Sikhs in particular worried that the policy, which left turban pat-downs to the discretion of screeners, would lead to harassment since head coverings are part of men's religious observance, and their removal is considered a sacrilege. Since the policy went into effect, the Sikh Coalition reported receiving 82 complaints from travelers who underwent pat-downs, Singh said. Only a handful of complaints were filed by men asked to remove turbans.
Still, Singh said he was not entirely satisfied by the change because the new policy puts the onus on the traveler to object to being patted down, or be asked to remove his turban before he is informed of alternatives. "My guess is that my grandfather or someone traveling from India is not going to know they have the option of saying no," he said.
TSA spokesman Christopher White called the policy adjustment "a good-faith effort to work with interested communities to come to a workable compromise and strike a balance between security and respect of passengers' beliefs."
Muslim groups also expressed relief at the policy change.
"All security procedures at airports need constant updating and adjustment [and] we appreciate the fact that the TSA is taking the concerns of the traveling public into account when making these adjustments," said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group.