Tension at U.S. airports between security and privacy may peak Nov. 24, one of the year’s busiest travel days, with a protest over growing use of full-body X-rays and of extensive pat-downs for those who reject the scans.
That date, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, is National Opt-Out Day for several groups urging passengers to avoid the scanners and to slow the screening by choosing a physical search. Organizers and some airline labor unions object to the radiation exposure and detailed view of bodies, and also call the pat-downs an unwarranted invasion of privacy.
“We’re fed up and we’re not going to take it anymore,” said Brandon Macsata, executive director of the Association for Airline Passenger Rights. “We can remain safe as a society without having to be subjected to intrusive screenings that violate our privacy rights.”
The Transportation Security Administration said the scanners or pat-downs are critical to stop weapons or explosives from being concealed under clothing, as happened on Christmas last year when a Nigerian man tried to blow up a U.S. jetliner as it landed in Detroit. A trade group for U.S. airlines said the protest probably won’t further snarl holiday travel.
Discouraging travelers from using the scanners is “irresponsible” given continuing security threats, TSA Administrator John Pistole said in a Nov. 15 statement.
‘Outcry Is Huge’
U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, told Pistole at a hearing today in Washington that the government must move to increase passenger privacy after protests against the enhanced pat-down procedures.
“We’ve got to see some action,” Hutchison said. “We’ve got to do more. The outcry is huge.”
Pistole said at the hearing that one of the new pat-downs he received “was more invasive than what I was used to.” Yet screeners “need to have an effective pat-down,” he said.
Macsata’s Washington-based group is among those backing the Nov. 24 protest, which began with at least two websites opposing the full-body scans. One site, www.wewontfly.com, has attracted 300,000 visitors since it was created two weeks ago, said George Donnelly, its founder.
Supporters are planning opt-outs in 11 U.S. cities, including New York’s Kennedy, Dallas, Denver and Phoenix, which are among the nation’s 10 busiest airports, said Donnelly, 39, a website designer and administrator who splits his time between Philadelphia and Medellin, Colombia.
Consumer advocate Ralph Nader is backing the opt-out effort, as are the civil liberties organization Electronic Privacy Information Center and passenger group FlyersRights.org, which at 5 p.m. Eastern time yesterday had about 1,440 signatures on an online petition to scrap the scanners.
The protests come as planes already are at their fullest since World War II and as 24 million people, 3.5 percent more than in 2009, are expected to fly during the 12-day holiday period that starts Nov. 19, according to the Air Transport Association, the airlines’ Washington-based trade group.
“I am not aware of any real concern over this proposed opt-out initiative,” David Castelveter, a spokesman for the airline group, said in an interview. “But it would be unfortunate if, during the most heavily traveled holiday period of the year, passengers further delayed the check-in process.”
Thirty groups, including the Consumer Federation of America and Consumer Travel Alliance, signed a letter earlier this year calling for the TSA to stop using the body scanners, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center has sued in federal court to block their use.
Unions representing 14,800 pilots at AMR Corp.’s American Airlines and US Airways Group Inc. have urged members to avoid the scanners, while the Air Line Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants, which together represent 103,000 workers, have pressed U.S. officials for a separate screening process for crews that avoids full-body scans.
The TSA has installed 385 of the X-ray scanners at 68 U.S. airports, compared with fewer than 50 machines for last year’s holiday travel season, said Greg Soule, an agency spokesman. About 1,000 scanners are slated to be in use by the end of 2011.
More than 99 percent of passengers are going through the new scanners rather than requesting a pat-down, Soule said.
The machines use X-rays to generate an image of a person’s skin and detect any hidden items underneath clothing. Previous screening focused mainly on metal detection.
The enhanced pat-down includes agents using the palm side of their hand and fingers instead of the back of the hand, which was the previous practice. Agents are allowed to feel around breasts and genitals for hidden items. The searches are done by agents of the same sex as the passenger, and the traveler can ask for them to be done in private.
“On the eve of a major national holiday and less than one year after al-Qaeda’s failed attack last Christmas Day, it is irresponsible for a group to suggest travelers opt out of the very screening that could prevent an attack using non-metallic explosives,” said Pistole, the TSA administrator. “This technology is not only safe, it’s vital to aviation security and a critical measure to thwart potential terrorist attacks.”
The Air Travelers Association isn’t backing the opt-out effort. The Chevy Chase, Maryland-based passenger advocacy group views the pat-downs as “very aggressive,” yet justified by recent security threats, said David Stempler, its president.
The protests are “just going to create misery for passengers, and passengers will be the only ones who suffer in that situation,” he said.
The average U.S. citizen receives about 3 millisieverts, or mSv, of radiation a year from “background environments” such as radon gas at home and medical and dental X-rays, according to the Radiological Society of North America, which is based in Oak Brook, Illinois.
A person would need 15,822 screenings from the TSA machines in a 12-month period, or 43 a day, to reach a 0.25 mSv dose, according to a 2009 study by Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.
“You would need 1,000 or 2,000 airport scans just to equal one dental X-ray,” said Richard Morin, a professor in the radiology department at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida. “You’re getting more radiation just sitting at your desk for 15 minutes than you would from one airport scan.”
There isn’t a guideline for maximum exposure, except for mammograms, where the legal limit is 3 mSv, Morin said.
David Bates, president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines’ 9,600 active pilots, told members in a Nov. 1 e-mail that the X-ray scanners “could be harmful to your health,” especially because pilots already receive higher doses of radiation from flying aircraft.
A cross-country round-trip flight adds about 0.03 mSv because of increased cosmic rays, the radiological society says.
The union recommends that pilots use designated crew lines for screening where available, and otherwise decline scanner exposure and request an alternative in a private area.
The US Airline Pilots Association, which represents pilots at US Airways, gave similar advice to its members and urged pilots to make sure they have a witness to any pat-down search.
One US Airways pilot subjected to an enhanced pat-down said the incident included “sexual molestation,” according to a message to members from Mike Cleary, president of the union representing those employees.
Bates called the enhanced pat-downs “a demeaning experience.”
“It is unacceptable to submit to one in public while wearing the uniform of a professional airline pilot,” he wrote.