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Already frustrated by post-Christmas airport security, Andrea Pilati thought she had seen it all. And then airport security personnel told her to stick her hands down her pants.

The consultant had passed the first wave of security for a January flight from Toronto to New York. "As I approached the second security, I was asked to put my hands in my pockets. Wearing a women's suit, I did not have pants pockets. The guard then told me to put my hands down my pants. I was flabbergasted. ...They wanted to swab my hands for explosives," she recalls.

She did, and was initiated into the humiliating new world of explosive-powder checks, now part of the security process at Canadian airports for travellers who don't pass through the full-body scanner.

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Transport Canada senior adviser Maryse Durette said Transport Canada and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority "use a variety of screening equipment and methods, using a targeted and random approach, to detect prohibited items during the screening process, including different forms of explosives."

Though she didn't discuss specific methods, technologies and details, citing security reasons, she said these methods are "based on international best practices and standards and an assessment of threat and risk information."

A frequent business traveller, Pilati has been subjected to the procedure weekly. (Travellers wearing pants with pockets put their hands in their pockets, and their hands are then swabbed.) And we thought having to take off our belts and shoes was bad. We've already got full-body scanners at several airports, and we've become somewhat accustomed to pat-downs. What's next - random body-cavity searches? Is there no end to how unpleasant authorities are willing to make air travel?

There could be changes afoot. At a recent meeting of airline executives and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano in Geneva last month, trusted- traveller programs, such as Nexus, already in place at some airports and land and sea borders were raised as a possible solution.

Nexus is a joint operation between the U.S. and Canada to pre-screen low-risk, frequent air, land and sea border crossers to let them bypass customs and immigration lines by swiping a card through a kiosk; there are currently 383,000 approved Nexus travellers. For travel to other countries, the Canpass program was devised to streamline airport customs and immigration in a similar fashion to Nexus; there are almost 4,800 approved Canpass travellers.

Steve Lott, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), was at the Geneva meeting. "The question came up, 'Why can't they do some trusted-traveller program?'" Lott says. "And we said, 'You already have one, the Nexus program. Why can't you build on that?'"

He recalls Napolitano looking surprised, and interested. And now Transport Canada, CATSA and the Canada Border Services Agency "have initiated discussions about how and if the trusted traveller programs such as Nexus can best be used to support security measures at the airport," says Esme Bailey, spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency.

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The U.S. Department of Homeland Security confirmed it, too, is looking into the program, though no one expects a fast turnaround. If a decision to go ahead is made, such changes would take months - if not years - to implement.

Now, pass holders for Nexus - which is jointly administered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the CBSA - pay $50 and submit to a very basic background check, are fingerprinted and allow an iris scan for a five-year pass. For the most part, Canpass follows the same procedure. It stands to reason a security-based trusted-traveller program would be much more complex.

For now, despite being embarrassed by the rigamarole at security, Pilati keeps her cool.

"Having a bad attitude about the whole situation just makes it more stressful," she says. "So I was joking around with the CATSA people, and just generally not being like everyone else in the line. Some guy ahead of me was reaming one of the agents out about something, and she pointed at me and said, 'Sir, this lady has been here three times today. She's the most secure person in this airport.' I started laughing."

Which, all things considered, is better than screaming, reaming or crying. Having had her patience tested enough, Pilati is hoping to reduce the frequency of her business trips.

"I have 10 weeks left on my contract," she says. "I am counting them down; however much I love New York, it's not worth it."

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And no matter how important air travel is to business, with waves of disgruntled travellers returning to the office week after week, some companies may end up coming to the same conclusion.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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