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U.S.-bound travellers line up at Toronto's Pearson airport. (FRANK GUNN)
U.S.-bound travellers line up at Toronto's Pearson airport. (FRANK GUNN)

Canadian airport security forbids opposite-sex screening Add to ...

Canada's air-security agency has ordered officers to stop the routine screening of travellers of the opposite sex.

Instead, passengers who set off an alarm as they walk through airport metal detectors must be searched by a screening officer of the same sex.

The official policy change was quietly disseminated by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority in December to the firms it contracts to handle security at 89 airports across the country.

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A copy of the bulletin was obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Once a metal-detector alarm is triggered at a passenger checkpoint, the screening of a traveller can be invasive. A hand-held device is run along all parts of the body scanning for metal. Belts can be ordered unbuckled, shoes removed.

A spokesman for the agency said "no particular incident" triggered the new bulletin. Rather the change is "simply CATSA's desire to improve its policies and procedures," said Mathieu Larocque.

Passengers already have the right to request that any physical search prompted by an alarm be conducted out of public view. In such cases, two officers of the same sex as the person being searched must attend. One officer carries out the actual examination while the other acts as a witness to ensure no improper activity takes place.

But most passengers accept public searches at often-busy screening points.

"This is a procedure that enhances our customer service," Mr. Larocque said of the new policy.

Word of CATSA's same-sex code comes just as the agency begins to install highly invasive scanning equipment at airports. Full-body scanners will penetrate clothing to produce a three-dimensional image of the body beneath, where hidden weapons or explosives can be readily seen.

The authority plans to have eight full-body scanners in place at major airports in March, and 36 more machines in the months that follow.

The program was accelerated after a Christmas Day incident in which a Nigerian man sewed explosives into his underwear in a failed attempt to bring down a Detroit-bound flight. Last week, Transport Minister John Baird said stiffer air-security fees will be added to ticket prices on April 1, pending parliamentary approval, partly to help pay for the new technology.

CATSA says the officer viewing the body-scan image will be in a separate room, with no direct view of the traveller or access to any personal information. The agency also says images will be deleted immediately, with no storage, printing or transmission.

But the safeguards have not quelled worries among many travellers about the invasive nature of the new machines, which will allow male officers to view female bodies, for example.

The restrictive same-sex procedures for screening officers are being implemented at the same time as the agency eases some workplace rules for female employees.

Previously, women officers who required maternity uniforms had to produce a doctor's note to prove they were actually pregnant. The agency had justified the policy by saying the written confirmation was necessary to justify the significant cost of maternity wear.

But that requirement has now been dropped. "It is simply a revision that allows (us) to streamline this process," Mr. Larocque said.

Necklaces, which had been banned, are now allowed. And earrings are now permitted to hang more than six millimetres below the earlobes.

The eased rules follow a controversy in 2007 when a Muslim woman officer was disciplined for wearing a skirt that was longer than regulations allowed. Halima Muse, who worked at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, lengthened her hemline in accordance with the Islamic dress code that promotes modest attire among Muslims.

Ms. Muse was suspended and without work for three months. Her union and the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations took her case to the Canadian Human Rights Commission. In 2008, she withdrew her complaint and a settlement was reached that included compensation for lost wages, benefits and seniority. CATSA also agreed to allow longer skirts.

The agency sets workplace standards for more than 6,000 screening staff across the country. About 48 million passengers are screened annually.

CATSA was created in 2002 in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. On Jan. 1, 2003, the organization took over sole responsibility for air-passenger screening, which had previously been handled by the airlines.

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