- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 9, 2002

Men and women alike are complaining about being groped by airline security personnel.

"I think it is a problem, not just in Phoenix, but across the country," said Janet Napolitano, Arizona's attorney general, in an interview yesterday on ABC's "Good Morning, America."

Miss Napolitano said she has received 50 complaints in the past week about inapppriate touching by security screeners in airports in her state.

Miss Napolitano appeared on the show with two other women who said they were disturbed about personal searches they underwent at airports in Phoenix and Miami. One of the women, Sharon Schmidt, said that the screeners seemed to be targeting good-looking young women traveling alone.

Eric Collins, a frequent flyer who was also interviewed, said he has noticed the pattern as well. He said he talked with several baggage handlers for Southwest Airlines, who were helping out with security at Phoenix's Sky Harbor Airport, shortly after September 11. "These guys happened to come down on their lunch break and sit down beside me and I asked them how they went about that. And they said, 'Well, we pretty much just pick the two hottest women and search them.'"

Asked about Mr. Collins' statements, Christine Turneabe-Connelly, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, said in an interview that such conduct would "not be consistent with the guidelines or training" that security personnel for the airline receive.

But if women are complaining about inappropriate searches by security personnel for Southwest, they apparently are doing it privately. Mrs. Turneabe-Connelly said she is "not aware" of any complaints by female passengers about improper touching during security checks.

Ken Sause, the owner of a travel agency in Wallingford, Conn., said women aren't the only ones suffering indignity at the hands of airline security personnel. He recalls how he was both "hassled" and humiliated at Miami Airport Nov. 17, before he and his two young children boarded a flight for Havana.

"This guy told me to spread my arms and legs and open my pants," Mr. Sause said in a telephone interview yesterday. His belt had been removed, and his pants were falling down.

"My buns were in the air, and this guy was touching my [buttocks as he felt for contraband]. I told him that if this had happened in the men's room. I would have had him arrested. I felt like I had more hands up my clothing than Punch and Judy," Mr. Sause added. As a travel agent, he says he's also heard customers complain about what they view as both unnecessary and unwelcome frisking.

Paul Turk, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, said of the incident Mr. Sause described: "When there's inappropriate touching like that, he needs to go to the airline and to the local police." The FAA does not have prosecutorial powers but can bring civil action against an airline that fails to address such inappropriate searches, Mr. Turk said.

Most complaints from women are about being groped by male handlers. But Mr. Turk said that shouldn't happen, because the "FAA requires that personal searches must be conducted by members of the same sex."

There is currently no available national data as to the number of such groping incidents. Mr. Turk said 18 people nationwide called an FAA hot line between mid-October and late January about treatment they received from airline security screeners, including complaints about improper touching.

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