Two women in their 80s put the Transportation Security Administration on the defensive this week by going public about their embarrassment during screenings in a private room at Kennedy Airport. One claimed she was forced to lower her pants and underwear in front of an agent so that her back brace could be inspected. Another said agents made her pull down her waistband to show her colostomy bag.
While not confirming some of the details, the TSA said a preliminary review shows officers followed the agency's procedures in both cases. But experts said the potential for such searches will increase as the U.S. population ages and receives prosthetics and other medical devices, some of which cannot go through screening machines.
"You have pacemakers, you have artificial hips, you have artificial knees," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. "As we get older and we keep ourselves together, it's going to take more and more surgery. There's going to be more and more medical improvements, but that can create what appears to be a security issue."
Prosthetic devices can set off metal detectors, and certain devices such as catheters and bags are visible on body scanners, making those passengers candidates for more thorough inspections. Metal detectors and wands can disrupt some devices such as implanted defibrillators, so those passengers must ask for pat-downs instead.
Ruth Sherman, 88, of Sunrise, Fla., said she was mortified when inspectors pulled her aside and asked about the bulge in her pants as she arrived for a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Nov. 28.
"I said, `I have a bag here,"' she said on Monday, pointing to the bulge, which is bigger or smaller depending on what she eats. "They didn't understand."
She said they escorted her to another room where two female agents "made me lower my sweatpants, and I was really very humiliated." She said she stood with her arms and legs outstretched, warning the agents not to touch her colostomy bag. Touching the bag can cause pain, she said.
"It's degrading. It's like someone raped you," Sherman said. "They didn't know how to handle a human being."
The next day, agents took 85-year-old Lenore Zimmerman, of Long Beach, N.Y., into a private room to remove her back brace for screening after she decided against going through a scanning machine because of her heart defibrillator. Zimmerman said she had to raise her blouse and lower her pants and underwear for a female TSA agent.
Bruce Zimmerman, her son, said the agents "should've patted her down."
"To have her pants and underpants pulled down is just beyond humiliating," he said Monday. "This is my mother we are talking about."
The TSA said Monday that it is still investigating the cases.
"Our officers are committed to treating every passenger with dignity and respect," the agency said in a statement.
The agency insists that security concerns come first, even if it means getting into passengers' drawers. In 2009, a Nigerian man tried to blow up a flight to Detroit on Christmas Day with explosives in his underpants.
"Terrorists and their targets may also range in age," the agency argued in a blog post after Zimmerman went public. It cited the November arrest of four Georgia men, ages 65 to 73, on charges of plotting an attack with the poison ricin. Prosecutors said the men were part of a fringe militia group.
Last June, the daughter of a 95-year-old woman said TSA agents wouldn't let her mother board a flight from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., to Detroit because her wet adult diaper set off alarms.
A TSA screener said Lena Reppert had a suspicious spot on her adult diaper, according to her daughter, Jean Weber. Weber ultimately took off the wet diaper so Reppert could be cleared in time for their flight.
The TSA said its inspectors handled the situation correctly and didn't ask Reppert to remove her diaper.
Such cases raise serious privacy questions, said Chris Calabrese, a legislative expert with the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It's a pretty fundamental invasion of privacy when you have to take your clothes off," Calabrese said.
Even lawmakers have complained about their treatment. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who has an artificial knee, told fellow members of a congressional committee that she dreads running into a certain TSA agent when it comes time for a pat-down at the St. Louis airport.
"I see her coming ... I like, you know, just tense up, because I know it's going to be ugly in terms of the way she conducts her pat-downs," McCaskill said.
The TSA says it has been trying to tailor its screening procedures for different types of passengers. In September it eliminated pat-downs for most children under 12 because of complaints from parents. In October it began testing an express screening program for frequent fliers at four airports.
The agency has formed an advisory committee of 70 disability groups to help adapt its screening techniques.
TSA chief John Pistole has said the agency is trying to train screeners to more quickly identify medical devices, such as catheters, to save passengers from embarrassment. He also said the agency might give preference to senior citizens going through the screening lines.
"We are looking at ways that we can recognize those of a certain age ... I don't want terrorists to game the system - but of a certain age that would be given an expedited screening," Pistole told a Senate committee last month.
Kelli Kennedy reported from Sunrise, Fla. Associated Press writer Colleen Long in New York also contributed to this story.