This Is What Really Happens If You Refuse A Pat-Down From TSA

For many, getting through airport security is one of the most dreaded parts of traveling. This is especially true if you've been pulled aside by a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officer for a pat-down screening. Even if pat-downs are meant as simple ways to keep the skies safe for travelers, the process can feel awkward and invasive, and you may wonder if there's any way to refuse a pat-down altogether.

We contacted Caleb Harmon-Marshall (Harmony), a former federal transportation officer and current flight rights advocate who shares his insights in the weekly travel newsletter Gate Access, to find out what your rights really are at the security checkpoint. According to Harmon-Marshall, your options are limited once you've been selected for a pat-down. During our exclusive chat, he explained: "The truth of the matter is you don't have an option, you must comply with TSA Officers in the event you need a pat-down. Once the AIT (Advanced Imaging Technology) detects an area that needs to be cleared, you will be held until that area is cleared."

You might have the option to leave to avoid a pat-down

If you really don't want to receive a pat-down by a TSA officer, you may be able to decline — but don't expect to be allowed onto your flight. Caleb Harmon-Marshall noted that you probably wouldn't be arrested or formally penalized for refusing a pat-down unless you act in a threatening manner or are found to have a dangerous item (such as a confiscated firearm) in your luggage.

Otherwise, you're free to leave the security checkpoint and return home to avoid frisking, as long as you and your belongings haven't already started the screening process. If your bags have already been placed on the X-ray conveyor belt, you may have to wait for them to be cleared by an agent before retrieving the items. Keep in mind that pat-downs are only carried out on selected passengers as a way to ensure you and other travelers aren't flying with forbidden items. In other words, unless you've already been requested to participate in a pat-down (or you're traveling with special items, such as prosthetics), don't enter the security line assuming you'll need one.

How to make a TSA pat-down more comfortable

If you'd rather not cancel your trip and return home, cooperating with the TSA agent and accepting the required physical body search is your best option. Thankfully, there are ways to make the pat-down a bit more comfortable. "Passengers have the right to receive a full body pat-down from an officer of the same sex," Caleb Harmon-Marshall revealed. "They also have the right to request the pat-down be conducted in a private area." Additionally, you can ask that a specific TSA agent of your choosing conducts the pat-down, though Harmon-Marshall added that this is subject to the agent's availability.

The former federal transportation officer also suggests personalizing the security screening process while still complying with the rules. For instance, he recommends wearing shoe covers to protect your feet, especially if you'll be standing around longer than usual for a pat-down. "As you may know, standard passengers are forced to remove their footwear at TSA security checkpoints," the expert explained (travelers with TSA PreCheck aren't required to remove their footwear). "You're allowed to keep socks on, but if you're a germaphobe like me, that's not enough. The floor is filthy, so utilize transparent shoe coverings and just throw them out when you've completed the screening process."