CENTRAL TEXAS — The Austin Airport and Advisory Commission, which reviews and makes recommendations to the city council on aviation issues, unanimously passed a resolution Dec. 14, opposing deployment of the controversial Advanced Imaging Technology machines at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.
The commission made the decision after listening to a presentation from the Federal Security Director of the Transportation Security Administration, Mike Scott, and pleas from more than 25 Austin citizens, who expressed outrage at the idea of bringing the AIT machines to the city’s airport.
Advanced Imaging Technology machines are a new type of screening tool that the TSA wants to use to screen airline passengers for both metallic and non-metallic items that might be concealed under clothing. The TSA plans to implement the new AIT machines in airports across the U.S. because the technology is critical to mitigating known and evolving threats, according to a TSA pamphlet.
The machines would come to Austin within the next two years, according to Scott. But citizens have voiced concerns about radiation from the X-ray’s the machine uses possibly causing cancer and regard the images being taken as too invasive.
Citizens were also concerned about the enhanced pat-downs that passengers have to go through, if they choose to opt out of using the AIT machines.
Robert Torn, Austin Airport and Advisory Commission board member, who spearheaded the resolution opposing the machines, voiced his concerns about the technology.
“For every scientist that says it’s safe, I can find three or four who say it’s not safe,” said Torn. “I think it’s an incomplete technology. I don’t think it’s ready for public use on legal grounds or on health grounds.”
Torn said that the technology is not ready on operational grounds either. Quoting his own experience, he said it seems to take 10 times longer for people to go through AIT screening than through the traditional screening.
Scott, presented TSA information on the AIT machines at the meeting prior to citizens communication, in which he addressed concerns about safety and privacy. The radiation from the machine is equivalent to that experienced for two minutes in flight and is 10,000 times less than a cell phone, he said, although he did not cite any sources on the health and safety information, as one citizen commented.
Privacy concerns could also be eased, he said, because the scan, which shows an image of the body underneath clothing, blurs the face of the individuals and the images cannot be stored. Also, the images are viewed remotely, Scott said, by an agent who never sees the passengers being scanned in person.
“I share a lot of these concerns. I am a citizen before I am a TSA agent but I am charged with securing the public,” Scott said. I am the only one in this room charged with that.”
All of the citizens who spoke at the meeting were opposed to the scanners. They thanked the commission for the platform to speak out and voiced hopes that the resolution would have “teeth” and would make it to Austin City Council. The speakers also denied the validity of the TSA’s claims about safety and privacy and about five people said that they would not fly again if the machines were installed at ABIA.
Heather Fazio, membership coordinator for the Libertarian Party, said that the proposed security measures are out of proportion to the threat. Fazio is also on the steering committee for Texans for Accountable Government, a group that will bring its concern over the machines to City Council members on Friday, Dec. 17 in a private meeting and will protest at AIBA the following day. In her speech, she was particularly opposed to the pat-downs that passengers receive if they opt out of the AIT machines.
“We have the option of being molested instead of being virtually strip-searched … How dare you? Now you tell me, who are the real terrorists in this country?” Fazio said, directed toward Scott.
Lynn Foster, a member of local activist group We Are Change Austin, questioned the effectiveness of the AIT machines. The machines were not used the day before Thanksgiving for National Opt Out Day, a national protest that asked all passengers to opt out of the AIT machines and go through the pat-downs, he said.
“When the risk was highest, [the TSA] copped out. That tells you that we don’t need these machines,” said Foster.
After the resolution passed to a round of applause, one of numerous rounds of applause during the meeting, citizens expressed hope that their concerns could gain traction but were told that only Austin City Council has the power to stop the AIT machines from coming to Austin’s airport and that the commission does not have the power to make City Council look at the issue.
“We don’t have any direct control over this. It’s going to take a lot of people making a lot of noise,” said Dale Murphy, Austin Airport and Advisory Commission chair. “Mr. Torn, who drafted this resolution, is hoping we will make a lot of noise.”
Citizen speakers appealed to the audience to continue to pursue the issue and asked people to call Austin City Council to voice their concerns.
“Please hold City Council accountable. We have seen it way too many times recently where they are not listening to the citizens.” said Monica Mercado, an Austin resident opposed to the AIT machines.
The Texas branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, which also opposes the AIT machines, offered to support the commission in its effort to further the reach of the resolution.
“We will work along side you as this moves up the ladder,” said ACLU-TX representative, Debbie Russell, “so that Austin airport, even if it’s the only one, stands on the side of the constitution.”