Monday, November 10, 2008

Please Remove Your Shoes

Millions of feet tread through airport security as required by the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) mandatory shoe screening policy. The American public is becoming aware of the ill effects of exposing their bare feet and are insisting airport security urgently present a solution to protect passengers without risking privacy and health. TSA instituted the mandatory shoe screening policy August 10, 2006. It is illegal for TSA to force anyone to remove their shoes, but if a passenger does refuse, he or she is passed on to the long inconvenience of being wanded and having bags searched. In December of 2001, Richard Reid attempted to set off a bomb during an American Airlines Flight from Paris to Miami. He managed to board the bomb on the plane through wiring in his shoes. He was not successful in his plan and was subdued by passengers on the plane when they witnessed him attempting to ignite the bomb with a match. Since this issue, TSA reacted with required removal of shoes with thicker soles and not till recently did they make it mandatory for everyone to remove their shoes, no matter the style. With improvised explosives being the number one threat to air passengers, it is necessary to see changes in the security system that correspond to passenger’s rights of health and privacy without adding to the inconveniences and time spent in security.

With TSA’s impulsive response to avert another shoe bombing, they quickly followed the easiest route of making people remove their shoes. With this becoming a mandatory process for the last two years, it is vital that new technology meet with TSA’s standards in order to minimize risks of people’s health concerning foot hygiene. The Rockport Company, a shoe company introducing machine washable shoes, did a study concerning floor germs and had ten people wear brand new shoes for two weeks. Afterwards, they tested the bottom of the shoes to find that the shoes had picked up more than 400,000 units of bacteria- including E-Coli. Several of these floor studies have also been done concentrating on airports alone. When a San Diego 10 News employee took samples from two popular destinations, Las Vegas and Phoenix, suspicions of living bacteria on the floor were confirmed. In Las Vegas, McCarron Airport, trichophyston, a mold causing ringworm and farvus was found. Also in Phoenix, Sky Harbor Airport, Neisseria was discovered. Neisseria is an organism that can lead to gonorrhea. Many podiatrists warn about the common fungus of “Athletes Foot” being transferred at airports. Athlete’s foot is contracted usually through public places such as showers, gyms, etc. Dr. Scott T. Grodman, a podiatrist, explains the hygienic concerns of having to remove shoes in the airport by describing the “normal flora”—the live organisms living on our skin by creating, “a shield or barrier to help fight off germs from invading our insides”. He goes on to describe that when wearing shoes such as sneakers and moving and walking around that the flora of the feet becomes more “dark, moist, and hot… the perfect breeding ground”. Therefore, when we remove our shoes and immediately come in contact with the floor of the airport, our warm attractive breeding grounds of feet are more at risk to be infected. The risk rises when an individual is “immunocomprimised” for example having AIDS, diabetes, or even just a small cut on the foot.

The mandatory shoe removal has potential of being a beginning conflict of interfering with a person’s privacy. Is shoe removal the start of mandatory apparel removal, what will happen when someone attempts to wire a bomb through his or her shirt or pants? Attempts to solve the problem of removing shoes and other articles of clothing become a privacy hazard. Many proposals of x-ray machines have been rebuked due to having private body images exposed. One wonders where the line should be drawn to avoid a potential terrorist versus revealing one’s intimate privacy. Minds linger on whether or not privacy and security can coexist or whether it is a choice- one or the other. The American Civil Liberties Union Legislative Council, Rachel King, eases Americans fears saying, “heightened airport security and respect for civil liberties are not mutually exclusive -- the former can be achieved without diminishing the latter,” and goes on to say, “Evidence has also shown that security measures that infringe on civil liberties are notoriously ineffective and create an illusion of security”.

Many companies including TSA and individual airports are quickly working on innovations for future responses to the problems of convenience, privacy, and health risks of shoe removal in airport security. The most available and perhaps simplest form of avoiding health risks is airport booties. Several small companies online sell these for around ten dollars for a package of ten. Also, some airports such as the Phoenix and Dallas Love Field give out complimentary booties. Bootie’s are purchased by the airport and not required by TSA. A Love Field Officer explains that although many people look past the booties, the people that do see them and wear them are usually very happy and thrilled to have their feet protected from the unsanitary floor. The employees of Love Field also choose to wear them when having to go through security, showing that the people who work at the airport everyday see what goes on the floor and do not want it on their bare feet- setting an example for the rest of the passengers. On the Love Field website their mission statement explains their reason for having these sanitary motions, “It is our mission to provide a safe, efficient and user-friendly airport system by being responsive to customer and community concerns while continuously improving services to both commercial and general aviation operators.” Some attempt to protect themselves from bacteria through wearing socks in the airport. But many airports confirm that they do not even allow people to wear their socks through security. Also, if one were permitted to wear socks through security, it would mean bringing the bacteria collected back to a person’s home rather than being able to dispose of them immediately provided by airport booties.

Prescreened programs are also developing to help beat the long lines and traffic of security and these programs are working harder and with more urgency than most to develop shoe scanners that will better their program. TSA and ACLU have just approved one of these programs known as Clear. Clear targets frequent flyers by having the member submit biographic information, a picture, fingerprint images, and iris images. Clear members are then able to follow a shorter designated line, but still cannot avoid metal detectors, x-ray machines, and specifically shoe removal. Clear is eager to give it’s members advantages and therefore are one of the top companies urgently working towards a shoe scanner innovation. The idea, as explained by Jason Slibeck, Clear’s Chief of Technology, is that the shoe scanner will be part of the Secure Registered Traveler (SRT) kiosk and will incorporate “the biometric verification done at all Clear lanes with some advanced detection capabilities”. This way a passenger can do everything at once- scan their shoes while checking in for their flight. Clear, along with GE Security, Department of Homeland Security Science, and Technology Directorate are working together to create a scanner that will allow airport security to detect materials such as explosives and to discriminate between threatening metal shanks or non threatening metal in shoes. Dan Mahlum, the GE Homeland Security Product Manager, describes the shoe scanner as “in an ongoing development stage”. Other security innovations that may be seen in the future are using biometrics, x-ray machines, or even thermal reader machines. All of these are constantly being drawn back to privacy issues with the ACLU.

As more people learn of the health risks and other inconveniences of removing shoes, solutions are becoming highly necessary and demanded by passengers, airports, and doctors. It looks as though it is only a matter of time when a solution will meet the agreements of TSA’s screening requirements and that of the people’s privacy concerns. Till then one will be forced to find sanctuary from exposing their health and privacy through paper booties, if offered. Perhaps the shoe removal issue has presented TSA and other security companies with the idea that innovations should be proactive now rather than reactive later, preventing hurried security inventions, necessary privacy breaches, and most importantly, potential terrorist attacks.


“The Screening Experience” Transportation Security Administration. 10 November 2008.

DeNoon, Daniel. “Shoes: New Airport Health Hazard”. Web MD: Women’s Health. 10 November 2008.

“Taking off Shoes at Airport Could Be Health Hazard”. Airport Business: Airline and Airport Security News. 10 November 2008.

“Covering Bare Feet At The Airport”. ABC 7, 15 August 2006. 10 November 2008.

Burgess, Kelly. “What’s Hiding on Your Floor?”. iParenting. 10 November 2008.

Duffy, Jonathan. “The Future of Airport Security”. BBC News Online. 12 November 2003. 10 November 2008.

Elliot, Michael. “The Shoe Bomber’s World”. Time. 16 February 2002. 10 November 2008.

American Civil Liberties Union. 20 September 2001. 10 November 2008.

“Shoe Screener System”. Federal Business Opportunities. 6 August 2007. 10 November 2008.

“Love Notes” Dallas Love Field. 10 November 2008.

Dr. Scott T. Grodman. Personal Email. 30 October 2008.

Jason Slibeck. Personal Email. 15 October 2008.

Airport Booties. 10 November 2008.

Murph, Darren. “Airport Shoe Scanners Holding Up the Show”. Engadget. 21 January 2007. 10 November 2008.

“How Clear Works”. Clear. 10 November 2008.

Mahlum, Daniel. Personal Email. 28 October 2008.

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