Airport-security protesters may have limited impact on U.S. Thanksgiving holiday travel because the body-scanning devices being targeted aren’t yet being widely used in terminals.
The Transportation Security Administration has installed more than 400 body scanners capable of detecting items beneath passengers’ clothes at 70 U.S. airports, agency spokesman Greg Soule said yesterday. That means fewer than a fifth of the nation’s 2,200 security lanes at 450 commercial airports will have the devices.
“The good news about this particular holiday season is that you’re likely probably not to encounter one,” said Rick Seaney, chief executive officer of Farecompare.com, an online travel site.
Federal transportation screeners, airlines and travelers have been preparing for tomorrow, one of the busiest travel days of the year. It may be complicated by some groups’ planned protests of body scanners.
Passengers should “use some judgment” and not tie up others traveling to see loved ones over the holiday, John Pistole, administrator of the security agency, said yesterday.
“We’ll be fully staffed,” Pistole said on NBC’s “Today” show. “The question becomes what happens to the wait times, and do people end up missing flights because a small or large group, whomever it is, decides to protest and delay those vast majority of people who just want to get home for the holidays.”
Traveling as Planned
Airlines said they are seeing no effects from planned protests. Delta Air Lines Inc. has seen “no notable volume” of cancellations or flights missed because of the screening process, said Susan Elliott, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based carrier.
“Anecdotal evidence from our folks at the airports and reservations centers has been that there is very little problem,” said Tim Smith, a spokesman for AMR Corp.’s American Airlines. “The overwhelming majority of customers are generally traveling exactly as planned.”
Pistole, in an interview with Fox News, said he would like to work with agencies including the Government Accountability Office to determine, “Are there less intrusive means that still provide that high level of confidence in terms of screening?”
Echoing a statement issued by TSA on Sunday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said yesterday that security procedures are “evolving.”
‘Gum Things Up’
Tomorrow, the day before the Thanksgiving holiday, has been declared National Opt-Out Day by several groups urging passengers to avoid the scanners and to slow the screening by choosing a pat-down search instead. Organizers object to the detailed view of passengers’ bodies that the scanners depict for a screener located in a remote room, along with what they say are negative health effects of the devices.
A small number of protesters could “gum things up,” so travelers should get to airports early, Seaney said.
Demonstrators will advise passengers of what the protesters see as health risks of the body scanners, said James Babb, co-founder of the website wewontfly.com.
“When people learn about the radiation risk, they may very well decide that they want to go with the enhanced pat-down,” Babb said. The security agency doesn’t “have the manpower to put their hands in everyone’s pants. So yeah, that could cause delays.”
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.
The TSA has been accelerating use of the scanners after the U.S. said Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight on its approach to Detroit Dec. 25 by igniting explosives in his underpants. The security agency plans to deploy 1,000 of the scanners at airports by the end of next year.
While the scanners are voluntary, those who opt out are subject to a pat-down that the security agency has said takes longer. “I’ve had the pat-down, and it is not what you would normally expect,” Pistole said in an interview Nov. 19 at Bloomberg’s office in Washington.
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.
Fewer than 2 percent of passengers opt out of going through the body scanners at airports where they are installed, Pistole said Nov. 19.
The protests are “certainly something we’re opposing,” said David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, an advocacy group in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
“It’s just going to create difficulties for passengers and it could cause them to be delayed or even miss their flight on a very busy travel day,” Stempler said.