A Star Tribune editor entering a security checkpoint at Washington's Reagan National Airport recently heard this announcement: "We're instituting a new pat-down policy this morning and, trust me, you're not going to like it.''
It's a shame that high-ranking officials at the Transportation Security Administration failed to broadcast a similar message to the entire nation instead of letting comedians and YouTube videographers hijack the story with a creative mix of parody and misinformation. An effective public awareness campaign by the TSA on full-body scans and new pat-down procedures could have kept the anxiety level down at our nation's airports this holiday season.
It's also likely that getting ahead of the flap would have muted the exaggerated news-media focus on the small percentage of air travelers -- about 1 percent of the 2 million screened every day -- who have chosen pat-downs instead of scanning this month. An education campaign could have pointed to opinion polls that show a majority of Americans support the use of body scanners. And that's despite the spread of inaccurate rumors about the technology and its use.
The TSA's lame initial attempt to manage the public's expectations consisted of a one-paragraph statement on its website, and TSA chief John Pistole admitted this week that he rejected internal advice to better inform the public. That was a tone-deaf decision.
At this point, fortunately, the Internet and TV hue and cry is disproportionate to the passenger reaction inside U.S. airports. At Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, there have been only 20 written complaints about pat-downs since the more aggressive procedures started Nov. 1, according to Patrick Hogan, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission.
With travel expected to be up 5 to 7 percent at MSP this week over last Thanksgiving, let's hope air passengers are more interested in seeing friends and family than in protesting security methods that were recommended by the 9/11 Commission and included in the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.
But some of us have short attention spans -- apparently too short to recall the attempt to bring down an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight last Christmas by alleged terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is charged with hiding explosives in his underwear. The TSA started using full-body scanners in 2007 and wisely expanded their use after the failed Christmas plot.
Airline security expert Christopher Bidwell pointed out in an interview with the Star Tribune Editorial Board that pat-downs have been used in aviation security since long before 9/11, while full-body imaging represents a significant step forward in TSA's layered security approach. Such a scan could have detected Abdulmutallab's explosives. Instead, just as fellow passengers snuffed out failed shoe bomber Richard Reid in 2001, it took an alert Dutch film director, with an assist from other passengers and crew members, to restrain Abdulmutallab and extinguish the fire he started, saving nearly 300 lives.
TSA botched the public-relations test on full-body scanning -- and certainly some screeners have used odd judgment in their treatment of a few passengers who have requested pat-downs in lieu of scans -- but it would be a much bigger mistake for the agency to retreat from using safe and effective technology that can make air travel less vulnerable to terrorism. No one enjoys the added security measures made necessary by the terror threat, but many of us feel safer because of them.