Increased Security in Pittsburgh Delays Traveller with Piercings

Attention, travelers with nipple piercings: If you plan to fly out of Pittsburgh International Airport this holiday season, bring your pliers.

Otherwise, you might miss your flight.

At least one passenger who traveled through Pittsburgh learned this the hard way. She had to remove her piercings in a restroom after airport security told her she couldn't get on a plane with her hardware intact.

The pierced passenger filed a complaint with the Transportation Security Administration, which logs all claims against its personnel at airports across the country. Along with passengers seeking to retrieve lost items or replace damaged luggage, the complaint forms contain some unusual insights from travelers:

- If you have an artificial leg, be prepared for it to be X-rayed separately.

- And don't even think about bringing a sewing machine in your luggage -- it could be mistaken for a bomb.

The TSA was formed in November 2001 in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. A Trib review of agency complaint forms found most travelers accept the need for increased security at airports, but object to what they perceive as overly aggressive searches.

One Pittsburgh traveler likened the pat-down she endured in November 2004 to being molested. A female security officer used something less than a light touch.

"She basically rubbed me down and cupped my breasts like a $2 hooker," the woman wrote of the officer. Two male guards already had scanned her with wands while two others watched. "When I was finally cleared, I did ask all of your 'professional' security guards 'if it was good for them.' "

Jeff Martinelli, Allegheny County Airport Authority spokesman, said security pat-downs often present unique situations. Underwire bras can set off the metal detectors, which is tricky for the person holding the security wand, he said.

"Unless the screener is out of line, what can you do?" Martinelli said. "The overwhelming amount of the time, the TSA person is just doing their job."

Despite the extreme encounters some passengers have with Pittsburgh's metal detectors, the airport doesn't even crack the top 10 list for most customer claims filed, TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser said. Airports leading the list are Los Angeles and O'Hare in Chicago.

Martinelli said TSA screeners put a note into any bag they search, which he thinks heightens awareness and might lead to more complaints. He recalled one passenger who said her sunglasses were stolen from her bag. Since the TSA left a search notice in the woman's bag, Martinelli said, she was convinced a screener had stolen her sunglasses.

"But it turned out she had never packed them in the first place," he said. "I think that illustrates that, once you know someone's been in your bag, you're automatically suspicious."

For the record, no baggage screeners at the Pittsburgh airport have been fired for theft since TSA's formation, Kayser said.

He said the agency takes pride in its quick turnaround of complaints. It tries to address issues and, when possible, resolve them within 60 days.

Since Pittsburgh is one of 19 airports that will get new devices to detect explosives, Kayser said he expects fewer pat-downs in the future.

Martinelli said after 9/11, the focus on airport security resulted in a surge in traveler complaints about screeners' "aggressive" searches.

"But 99 percent of the time, security screeners are doing what they've always done to try to keep things secure," he said. "People are just paying closer attention."

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