WASHINGTON – Children 12 years old and younger soon will no longer be required to remove their shoes at airport security checkpoints, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told Congress on Tuesday. The policy also includes other ways to screen young children without resorting to a pat-down that involves touching private areas on the body.
The changes should be rolled out in the coming months, Napolitano said during a Senate hearing on the terror threat to the U.S.
Napolitano said there may be some exceptions. Terrorists have plotted to use children as suicide bombers, and some children still may be required to remove their shoes to keep security random.
"There will always be some unpredictability built into the system, and there will always be random checks even for groups that we are looking at differently, such as children," she said.
Many travelers have complained that the TSA does not use common sense when it screens all air travelers the same way, including young children and the elderly. Criticism escalated last year when the government began using a pat-down more invasive than what had been used in the past, one that involves screeners feeling a traveler's genital and breast areas.
Earlier this year, TSA Administrator John Pistole instructed screeners to make every effort to screen young children without giving them the new pat-down. Pistole had called for a more aggressive pat-down when he took over the agency last year because he thought it gave screeners the best chance at stopping a suicide bomber like the one who nearly brought down an airliner over Detroit in 2009 with a bomb tucked in his pants.
Instead of patting down a young child, screeners will soon be told to send children through metal detectors or the walk-through imaging machines multiple times to capture a clear picture and use more explosive trace detection tools such as hand swabs, according to a homeland security official speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the measures.
The government is expected to soon begin testing a new airport screening system on a small number of travelers who volunteer personal information that intelligence officials will vet. If cleared, these travelers could go through security faster, in some cases, because they won't be asked to take their shoes off.
Removing shoes during checkpoint screening has been a common complaint among airline travelers since security was increased after an al-Qaida operative tried to set off a bomb built into his shoe on an American Airlines flight in December 2001.
Not all countries around the world have the same requirements. For instance, countries in the European Union have never required that travelers take off their shoes to go through security at airports, Pistole has acknowledged. And while no one has attempted another shoe bomb on a U.S. flight since December 2001, Pistole said the technique continues to be an option for terrorists.
"Probably the most visible part of the change in homeland security since 9/11 for most Americans has been the presence of TSA at the airports," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee which held Tuesday's hearing. "It's an annoyance to people," Lieberman said of the security measures. "But they put up with it."