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Published November 19 2010

‘I will never fly again’ says local man after airport pat-down

Humiliating.

Traumatic.

Lack of respect.

Henry Pietrzak used all of those words to describe the pat-downs he endured at airports in Minneapolis and Charlotte, N.C., during a trip last week to the Dominican Republic.

It was supposed to be “kind of the last hurrah” for the 66-year-old Oakport Township resident, who earned the trip through his job as a salesman for a local company for the past 37 years. He plans to retire at the end of the year.

Instead, Pietrzak joins a growing chorus of airline passengers crying foul over the federal Transportation Security Administration’s more thorough pat-down techniques, which he described as “very invasive.”

He’s also upset TSA officials ignored the card from his doctor informing them that he had knee replacement surgery and has two titanium knees that would set off airport security alarms.

Pietrzak said he subjected himself to pat-downs instead of going through the full-body X-ray scanner because he is concerned about radiation.

“I’m not trying to be a wuss about this, but damn it, I should have more rights as a citizen of this country,” he said.

As area snowbirds prepare to head south for the winter, such complaints could mount.

So far, Hector International Airport Executive Director Shawn Dobberstein said he hasn’t heard passengers grumbling about the new TSA pat-down procedure that took effect in late October.

The Fargo airport will receive a full-body scanner, which is an alternative to pat-downs, “in the not-too-distant future,” but the TSA hasn’t said when it’ll arrive, Dobberstein said.

The TSA hopes to deploy 500 of the advanced imaging scanners by the end of this year and another 1,000 by the end of 2011, but it hasn’t announced a deployment schedule for airports that don’t have them, TSA regional spokeswoman Carrie Harmon told The Forum on Thursday.

Dobberstein said he’s “not really” concerned about the new scanner or pat-down procedures deterring air travelers in Fargo.

“By and large, the traveling public here, at least in our area, is all for being secure when they get onto an aircraft,” he said. “And if there’s technology that helps to expedite the process at our checkpoints, not only here but across the country, I think there’s some advantage to that.”

Lyle Halvorson, communications director for AARP of North Dakota, said he hasn’t heard anything from members about the new pat-down process.

The TSA says it uses pat-downs primarily when alarms are triggered at the walk-through metal detector, if the full-body X-ray scanner detects an anomaly or during “random” screening. They’re also given to passengers who opt out of the scanners or metal detectors.

For security reasons, the TSA won’t share details of its pat-down procedures, other than to say they are performed by an officer of the same gender.

The Associated Press reported this week that the pat-downs “can take two minutes per passenger and involve sliding the hands along the length of the body, along thighs and near the groin and breast.”

“They were going up and down my legs, and then on my waistline they stuck their hands in there and went around,” Pietrzak said of his experience.

Previously, TSA officers conducted pat-downs with the backs of their hands.

During a Capitol Hill hearing Wednesday, TSA Administrator John Pistole acknowledged that the pat-down “is clearly more invasive” but said the new security measures are necessary because of intelligence on the latest attack methods terrorists may use, The Associated Press reported.

“I’m not going to change those policies,” Pistole said.

Pietrzak said he was “miffed” when the TSA wouldn’t recognize his doctor’s card at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, but he didn’t raise any objections and allowed himself to be searched.

On the way back from the Dominican Republic, he wore shorts instead of pants, hoping the sight of his visible knee scars would convince TSA officials to allow him through without another pat-down.

It didn’t make a difference. Pietrzak admits he “was not happy” and swore at the TSA officials. They threatened to call police, and he reluctantly allowed the search to proceed so he and his wife wouldn’t miss their flight.

Pietrzak said he feels his rights as a U.S. citizen were taken from him. He’s already talked to U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., about the treatment by airport security, he said.

“I will never fly again,” he said.

Dobberstein said the Fargo airport often deals with people presenting doctor’s notes or cards to TSA officers.

“The notes don’t matter,” he said. “They (TSA officers) have their procedures in place, and they have to resolve whatever is before them at the checkpoint.”

Harmon said a doctor’s note has never exempted a passenger from screening, but added the TSA does have alternative screening methods available for passengers with special needs.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528