back to article World's largest pilot union shuns full-body scanners

The world's largest independent airline pilot association is warning its members to avoid security screening by full-body scanners out of concern the machines emit dangerous levels of radiation. The American Pilots Association, which represents about 12,000 pilots, is recommending members instead submit to new pat-down searches …


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  1. Charles Manning

    Operators might up the dose?

    Surely these machines are fitted with X ray generators of a limited power and can't be souped up by twiddling a knob any more than a 500cc Fiat can be changed into a V8 by pulling out the choke.

    An internal regulation failure might cause the device to emit overdoses for a shot while, but the unit would likely overheat and fail quite quickly.

    Scare mongering.

    1. John H Woods Silver badge


      It's easy to increase the power output of a 500cc Fiat - just press the throttle. It's easy to overdrive a laser pointer to paper-burning intensity - just burn out the regulator. It's easy for an X-ray machine to give overdoses - just increase the exposure length.

      Your premise is incorrect, but your argument is also a non-sequitur, so even if it weren't your conclusion would still be unfounded.

    2. Alfred

      Hospitals routinely overdosing patients with radiation

      Take a quick scan through this list:

      There are lots of cases of people revving the machine up too high and killing patients. These are presumably medical professionals running machines that have gone through a whole host of "please do not kill people with this machine" type checks and tests, and they still managed to do it.

      Some over-zealous nutbag knocked back from every professional law-enforcement agency and ends up working for the US TSA in charge of a magic terrorist finding box? She's going to jack that thing up as soon as she works out which knob to fiddle with.

  2. Dennis SMith

    Just say no.

    If people would just say no by not submitting to the searches at the security check points, and planes started leaving nearly empty, policies would change really quickly. If we don't stand up for our rights, we will soon have none left.

    But then, sheeple aren't noted for having much backbone.

    1. Chris 3

      You think?

      Personally, I see the airline rubbing their hands as they pocket lots of non-refundable tickets and save a bunch on fuel bills: "You should have checked in earlier if you were going to refuse perfectly ordinary security proceedures".

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No! I don't want this, I will not submit.

      RE: Just say no.

      Indeed, people might try to come up with technical reasons to not allow the scanners such as radiation exposure, but they will simply be disproved in the long term by industry backed research leaving them with no recourse.

      People just need to say "No! I don't want this, I will not submit." whatever your reasons, no one can argue with that!

      That stance will probably result in not gettting on a plane but that's the top and bottom of it.

      It just depends how much an individual is willing to be pushed around, to the point where they will allow complete strangers to examine their naked bodies as part of a routine security check.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Sheeple? Oh yes. Of course.

      There's no chance that these people have already weighed their dislike of the security arrangements against their requirement to be elsewhere quickly and easily.

      Oh no, they're just mindless idiots flying around the skies because that's what they've been told to do.

      Not like me, of course! No, I'd never do that! If my boss told me fly somewhere I'd say, "Screw you, boss man! I ain't no sheeple! I won't be groped by some security theatre troglodyte in the name of anti-terrorism measures!"

      "Oh, what's that? It's that or my job? Oh." <sheeples>

  3. Julian I-Do-Stuff
    Thumb Down

    New Improved UV

    Hmmmm... if UV is carcinogenic, then higher energy X-rays dumping their energy into the epidermis must be.... totally safe! And to think we spend billions on things like the LHC when we could have asked a security expert/scanner maker how stuff works.

  4. Cameron Colley

    X Rays?

    Are they actually X Rays in these things? If so I would like to know so I can ask the appropriate questions next time I fly.

    I was under the impression they were a different wavelength. I also thought that they had to not dump energy into the skin if they were to penetrate it.

    1. Anton Ivanov

      Depends which ones

      TSA has chosen X-ray.

      There are however IR and microwave units on the market as well. IMO IR is the right choice if there is any tech to be deployed at all. It is harmless and it is reasonably good at detecting stuff. The famous German chemistry prof TV stunt does not apply in reality as most passengers will be queuing in line for the machine and before that at the check-in so anything taped to legs, hands, etc will warm up and become clearly visible.

      They are also invaluable if there will be another SARS, pigflu or whatever other pandemic of the day scare as people with a fever are immediately visible even they have stuffed themselves with lemsip to the gills.

    2. Martin Gregorie Silver badge

      Think backscatter...

      If you're going to get enough backscatter for a decent image from a relatively absorbent, low atomic weight material like skin you're going to need a pretty fair shot of radiation. It would be interesting to know exactly how deeply the radiation penetrates skin and the ratio of backscattered to absorbed radiation. My gut feeling is that a lot more will be absorbed than is backscattered, in which case the pilots have a good point. Very frequent flyers should take note too.

      @ Charles Manning

      X-ray tubes do age so it seems reasonable for the machine to have some sort of brightness control to compensate for an older tube. Thats' not to say that the operator can turn it up, though: it could be an internal technician-only control. However, my money would be on an automatic setup that measures reflected energy and shuts the beam off when enough energy has been backscattered for an acceptable image to form.

      1. Wize

        So the system can automatically turn itself up?

        And if the sensor fails, will it turn itself up to 11 trying to read a passenger?

  5. Bagocolts


    This is not the largest pilot union in the world. The is the independent union of American Airlines. A single company. APA likes to send out letters to anyone who will listen just to feel important. Bill Clinton kicked their ass back in the '90's when they went on strike and they haven't been the same since, The largest union is ALPA, the Airline Pilots Association. They have 43,000 members.

    ALPA historically sends letters to its members saying we feel your pain and then tries to work behind the scenes politically to effect change. Pilots unions are not very effective at doing much of anything in the US, so don't expect much just because the pilot unions don't like it.

    It is a pretty well know fact however that international pilots do have a higher incidence of cancer. So they probably don't need to receive any extra going through security every working day.

  6. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    A titular title

    @Cameron Colley, some of these machines use "milllimeter waves" which is right in the range where they could either be microwaves or infrared. Others use X-Rays. "I also thought that they had to not dump energy into the skin if they were to penetrate it." They *don't* penetrate it, these scanners do not pick up X-Rays that penetrate through the body, but rather ones that reflect off of it.

    I'm concerned about these machines too. To be honest, I think they are *probably* safe. But

    1) The claim that they're safe because it's only the same amount of X-Rays as 5 minutes in the air, or 4 hours on the ground, is absolutely bogus because it's that level of exposure in 5 seconds. I mean, think about it: "Here, you can touch this object thats 5 degrees above body temp for 5 minutes right? OK, here's one that's 300 degrees above body temp, hold it for 5 seconds, don't worry it's fine, you'll get the same infrared exposure."

    The exposure MIGHT be safe -- but given the TSA lying and claiming the machines would obscure people's junk, THEN lying and claiming "Well, it doesn't obscure it but the resolution's too low", THEN lying and saying images can't be recorded anyway, and on and on, of course they'd lie and say the machines are safe whether they are or not.

    2) Maintenance, tuning, and operation. I agree with the doubts that anyone will ever check these instruments "in the field" to make sure they are operating up to spec (i.e. not producing excessive X-Rays, leaking them out where they shouldn't, and so on.) I just don't think these will be treated with the respect a medical X-Ray machine will. And to the commenter that says "Well, it'll just burn out". Well, no, not really. If you look at accidents with medical devices like the Therac-25, it was shooting out like 1000x the dose that'd be possibly medically useful, no problem. Designing a device so it runs it's components full bore in normal operation results in unreliable hardware and shorter service life. I don't think the machines will go Therac on anyone, but I could see the unit being calibrated a *little* high, plus leaking or scattered X-Rays adding exposure while standing in line, plus if the operator controls the scan time scanning a little longer than recommended, and maybe scanning some people multiple times (if they don't have their legs spread right or whatever) -- adding up to people getting multiple times the dose that is claimed.

    Mainly, though, it's security theater and I won't stand for it. This kind of thing really is what makes the terrorists win -- a terrorist's goal is not to blow stuff up or to kill people, it's to *terrorize*, and bring about the resultant knee-jerk reactions. TSA is putty in their hands.

  7. Ed 21
    Thumb Down

    stupid scanner

    I just went from San Diego to Fort Lauderdale and had to go through one of these in SD. Apparently the shorts I was wearing cause an inconclusive result so I needed the full body pat down. he all but cupped my package!! So much for speeding up the process while keeping us safe.

    1. Ef'd


      Maybe you shouldn't have such a suspiciously large package in your carry-on

  8. Tim


    Security is a compromise. *If* these x-ray jobbies really are concentrating relatively high x-ray doses on the skin (I wouldn't know), then the trade seems flawed: it can't be right to subject tens of millions of passengers to a measurably increased chance of skin cancer in exchange for possibly detecting a threat to at most, say, five hundred on a single flight.

    If indeed these things are lightly toasting the dermal layers then the occasional family holiday passenger may not be affected, but what of those of us who fly a lot for business? I get on a plane twice a month on average (which is nothing compared to some poor sods, never mind the pilots) but I'm absolutely not willing to risk a melanoma for a bonus.

    At least there is still an opt-out. I'll take the pat down humiliation every single time.

    1. Rattus Rattus

      "in exchange for possibly detecting"

      That's not the exchange they're making. "Homeland Security" (what a misnomer) know there's an infinitesimally tiny chance of someone actually trying to smuggle a bomb through the checkpoint and an even smaller chance they wouldn't already have been detected prior to the scan.

      The point of the security theatre business is to keep people afraid that they might actually be necessary, thereby ensuring a continued stream of business and to provide excuses for any demands they care to make. If people are scared enough they'll submit to anything, goes the thinking.

      I, too, would opt for the pat-down instead. I'd probably pepper it with comments like "Yeah, that's good," "Squeeze a bit harder right there" and "Can you teach my wife how to do that?" Might as well make it as uncomfortable for them as for me.

      1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        "Might as well make it as uncomfortable for them as for me."

        Enjoy you wait in the line for the cavity search in that case. Best not to try to play these people at their own game; they'll almost certainly be better at it than you!

      2. John Murgatroyd


        uncomfortable for them will it be to perform a body-cavity search on an uncooperative passenger ?

      3. Wize

        Annoying the ones doing the search will do nothing.

        Its like hurling abuse at a poor sod in a call centre. They are not the ones making the decisions.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      you're not flying ryanair then....that'll be another 30 quid.

  9. Anonymous John

    What's the point in screening pilots anyway?

    If they wanted to bring down an airliner, all they have to do, is crash it.

    1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      The point is

      that everyone going through security gets the same treatment. The screeners don't know if the guy in a pilots uniform is a pilot, or just some guy dressed up in a pilots uniform.

    2. a_been

      re: What's the point in screening pilots anyway?

      Now your just being stupid, if the TSA starts using logic they may change their behavior and then the terrorists will have won!

    3. Anonymous Coward

      Nice thought - but

      Once you are through security at most airports you can hand over stuff to other people. It would be trivial for a rogue pilot who didn't have to go through security to mule through something for a passenger on a different aircraft.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    Sounds Bananas

    From the link it says "0.25 µSv per screening". To put it in perspective thats about the same as eating 2.5 bananas, enough said.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      I recommend

      you read the definition of Sv. That's essentially dose in Grays multiplied by a dimensionless factor representing tissue and type of exposure, which is very arbitrary in this case because these are new devices operating at different photon energies than 'normal' X-ray machines, so e.g. skin absorption may be different than usually assumed, for various reasons - some pointed in the article.

      Yet, it is very hard to find dose expressed in Gy or discussion quoting why particular N factor was chosen - if you have a link with this information given officially, I think quite a few people will be interested.

    2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      Apples != Oranges != Bananas

      Bananas don't emit X-rays; they emit beta particles by radioactive decay of potassium-40. These would travel a very short distance and be absorbed by the outer layers of the lining of the gut, which are shed frequently before they become cancerous from environmental damage (evolution already having done the job of handling the effects of carcinogens and mutagens in the gut to a certain degree).

      In contrast, a dose of X-rays from a back-scatter scanner would be likely to be largely absorbed by the outer layers of the skin. Whilst the outermost layer is shed frequently, the subcutaneous layers are not. It is entirely plausible that X-rays would cause damage to these layers, and whilst most cells can repair the sort of damage that low doses of radiation would cause, all it takes to cause cancer is damage in several key places in the genome simultaneously, the probability of which rises with an increase in radiation dose.

      Sounds bananas? Sounds like disingenious bollocks, more like.

  11. Slx

    I am not going through backscatter X-Rays - end of!

    The simplest solution is that business people and tourists should simply boycott all destinations that have these backscatter x-ray devices installed.

    We need an up-to-date list of all airports using them so that consumers can make a choice of destination based on health risks.

    Millimeter wave scanners are fine, I have no issue with them as they are essentially completely passive.

    I don't even care that much about being patted down. It's a bit annoying, but I'd rather minor embarrassment than skin cancer!!

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Who needs terrorists...

    ...when the authorities are doing a fine job of violating our freedoms?

    Glad that somebody is finally waking up to these things. I hope that in five years time these scanners are just a bizarre entry in the history books. Like the McCarthy hearings.

    1. Notas Badoff

      Footnote needed

      Things you think are bizarre...

      Recently the US Texas Education Board (controlled by... well, you know which) have required a _much_ more favorable evaluation of the McCarthy hearings in new grade school textbooks. After all, they say, accounts from Russian archives available after the Cold War was over ("ha," they say "they say it's over, ha!") *prove* that "There were red communists spies inside the US government!!!" And so the McCarthy hearings were good and fine and the US at its finest, etc.

      That the hearings _themselves_ never revealed a single dang furrine agent is also well known, but revisionist readings seem to be in style these days. The hearings were failures, but "We were right!!!" is all they want heard.

      So, years from now, there will be those who say "See, just the threat of those fancy pants piercers scared ol' them turerists off!"

      No way, you say? People have a habit of listening only to what they want to hear. Hey, there is a very vocal contingent of global varming varmint naysayers right local here at the Reg. It goes on...

  13. Chad H.

    Why do we scan pilots?

    I've got news for the TSA, and I don't think they're gunna like it.

    There's this magical group of people out there, who don't need butter knives, killer belt buckles, shoebombs or explosive bottles of coke to take out an aircraft.

    These people have a magical property that no invasive scanner can pick out.

    These people are called pilots. To take over an aircraft and turn it into a giant missile all they need do turn left when all the other passengers turn right after boarding the aircraft.

    The TSA should stop wasting their time on people dressed as pilots and carrying full veriifable iD and going back to doing what they do best - checking closets for boogeymen.

    1. Mark C 2

      @Chad H.

      And what if a pilot smuggles something nasty through security and hands it over to someone on another flight?

      Thought so....

      1. Paul RND*1000

        What if...?

        Exercises in "what if?" are all very well, but if you follow that to its logical conclusion and manage to assess every possible "what if", there'd be no way you could ever allow an aircraft to move, let alone leave the ground.

  14. There's a bee in my bot net

    Meanwhile on this side of the pond...

    We don't have the option of an opt out in the UK.

    We either take the risk (which, if the response to the letter of concern is to be believed, is a chance of death after 1000 screenings (at the expected, stated dose) of 1 in 80,000,000 or to put it another way you are 6 times more likely to win the lottery, and how many people win the lottery!) or we forfeit our holiday/ticket/job (delete as appropriate).

    Personally speaking, I would love to be able to say with absolute conviction that I will say when herded to the scanner, "I'm a liberal and I don't agree with this sort of thing", but if push comes to shove, I don't think I can wave goodbye to £300 or more when £300 is hard to come by.

    However on the return leg I might be more inclined to say "Thanks but no thanks". If asked to go through a scanner. I wonder what happens then? Are you left stranded? What recourse would you have?

    1. The Jase


      "We either take the risk (which, if the response to the letter of concern is to be believed, is a chance of death after 1000 screenings (at the expected, stated dose) of 1 in 80,000,000"

      Have you seen and understood the science behind this and where this figure comes from and the research backing it up? I don't trust a commercial company to supply me "safe" figures on their own (radioactive) products. Didn't the tobacco companies do the same with their product?

      Do the security people get to go in first? After all, if its safe it should be ok for them.

      1. There's a bee in my bot net

        RE: Science

        "Have you seen and understood the science behind this and where this figure comes from and the research backing it up? I don't trust a commercial company to supply me "safe" figures on their own (radioactive) products. Didn't the tobacco companies do the same with their product?"

        I have read the letter sent to John Holdren as well as the response. I also read a fair bit of the supporting material (it is incredibly dry and there is only so much I can take) as well as some other opinions, research etc.

        I didn't get the impression that the advisory or regulatory bodies were sponsored by the industry. Though I can't say for certain one way or the other, after all that is how these things often work and I have not looked too deeply into its members.

        Have I seen the science? No, I was not there, nor have I seen any footage of the researchers, scientists and advisory boards in action.

        Did I understand the science? I haven't spent years pouring over the research and gaining expert like insight, but I understand the principles and can see the logic of both sides of the argument. And understand enough to draw the conclusion that neither is conclusive and subject to interpretation.

        I don't think it is black and white due to the huge range of factors and considerations. From the methods (as stated in previous posts) used to measure effective radiation doses to the control the operators have over the scanners (very little it would seem other than the number of times they scan you), the tolerances in the equipment, the technicians that calibrate them, the individuals sensitivity to radiation, the amount of exposure to the scanners and other sources of x-rays. The list goes on and time will tell.

        I also recall more than one occasion when products, chemicals or processes were hailed as safe or even beneficial and the opposite turned out to be true, with long and protracted legal battles ensuing as people tried to seek restitution.

        I take all of this with a pinch of salt and a healthy dose (no pun intended) of scepticism. Hence why I said "if the response is to be believed".

        "Do the security people get to go in first? After all, if its safe it should be ok for them."

        I had thought of doing that but if the scanners really are harmful I wouldn't wish to increase the operators exposure for my peace of mind.

        I also considered the option of asking for a written guarantee from the operators that the machine was safe and that they would indemnify me against any future health problems. I Suspect however that that would just be taken as a refusal to co-operate and would be met with stony-walled officialdom and the loss of any chance of catching your flight. (Remember in the UK we have no alternative - scanner or the door) Not only that but any future health consequences would be difficult to attribute to airport scanners unless there are a hell of a lot of cases.

        I also considered asking to be scanned by a passive millimetre wave scanner as an alternative, however I discovered that the definition of passive isn't what I understand it to be when used in reference to a millimetre wave scanner and that that device actively bombards you with potentially damaging microwave radiation.

  15. Hollerith 1

    how to build duct tape and tin foil knickers

    There must be a website out there that shows how to make a pair of knickers out of duct tape and aluminium foil. Or which sells them. Or, if not the full monty, cache-sexe for the gents and 'g' strings and modesty bras for the women, to be slipped on for those few moments between the loo outside the security gate and the loo inside the security gate? Would a wearer of these get hauled out of the line for an invasive body search? Would there be health risks if the duct tape (1) stuck to the wearer (2) stuck to the security agent (3) oozed gummy stuff? For the sake of all our freedoms, we ought to kmow.

    Mine's the one with the home-made anti-RFID wallet and a tiny <100ml bottle of solvent in the pocket.

  16. Rogerborg

    Whacko paranoids!

    Believing that Invisible Rays can hurt them more than Invisible Terrorists. Are these so-called "pilots" really patriotic enough to be allowed to sit and watch their autopilots do all the work? Frankly, I think persistent refusal to submit to a Patriotism Scan should lead to them being put on no-fly lists.

    1. Brian Morrison

      Remember Captain Black's loyalty oath drive..... Catch 22.

      “What makes you so sure Major Major is a Communist?”

      “You never heard him denying it until we began accusing him, did you? And you don’t see him signing any of our loyalty oaths.”

      “You aren’t letting him sign any.”

      “Of course not,” Captain Black explained. “That would defeat the whole purpose of our crusade. Look, you don’t have to play ball with us if you don’t want to. But what’s the point of the rest of us working so hard if you’re going to give Major Major medical attention the minute Milo begins starving him to death?"

      And if only is was a joke....

  17. bugalugs

    I do believe

    this story would have made Roentgen faint

    1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge


      He'd still know where his wife's hand was...

  18. Keris
    Black Helicopters

    Boycott destinations?

    I already do, and have done since 2001. I refuse to go into ThatBigCountryBetweenCanadaAndMexico, and I tell employers that before I even get to the interview. If they statr using the scanners for other destinations at airports I'll simply refuse to fly.

    Yes, I miss certain holidays and events, but I have weighed the factors and decided that I can as easily take holidays in Europe (and drive there, not fly). There are plenty of good places to visit in the UK, for that matter, and they don't mean wasting several days to get there and back. As far as work is concerned, I can do my job just as well using teleconferencing and remote access, very few things acually need physical presence these days.

    Just Say No. If the pilots did that then the TSA and similar organisations would find their jobs very easy (and soon be out of work) with no one to search.

  19. Tom 13

    [cue 70s piano music] Di-di-a-di-a-di-a-di...

    Then one day after an accidental overdose of X-ray radiation at an airport security checkpoint, and now whenever Ian McGumby becomes angry a startling metamorphosis takes place. Wanted for a crime he did not commit, and relentlessly pursued by TSA Inspector Javert Ian must search for a way to control the raging creature that dwells within...

  20. Equitas
    Paris Hilton

    Don't know about pilots ..............

    but what on earth do they do when they come across a female passenger with a procidentia?

    Paris, because it's one thing that everyone knows she certainly hasn't got

  21. Paul RND*1000

    Death by terrorism vs death by radiation?

    I can't help but wonder at what amount of exposure does your risk of death due to these scans become higher than your risk of death due to a terrorist action taking down the plane you're on.

  22. grotbags

    dont panic people!

    The dose accrued per scan is extremely low. I think what the article is referring to is the annual dose to pilots which do receive an increased dose due to there time spent at altitude. If they had to be scanned as well would they have to fly less to be below there dose limits? In this case probably not.

    Although the use of "banana dose" is not quite correct (internal dose rather than skin dose) it does however emphasise how small the accrued dose per scan is. Lets not forget radiation is everywhere and our cells have evolved to deal with this, we all get on average 2.4mSv per year.

    After reviewing the dose (actually 0.5uSv to the skin) I will use the scanner and be sat in lounge waiting for everyone else who chooses the frisk search.

    The beer because thats what il be drinking

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