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Holiday Fliers Avoid Scanner Logjams as Security Trumps Privacy

Holiday Fliers Avoid Scanner Logjams
A traveler stands in a body scanner at the Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg

Thanksgiving holiday fliers accepted new body scanners and moved smoothly through checkpoints at U.S. airports, including New York’s LaGuardia and Chicago’s O’Hare, on one of the year’s busiest travel days.

As passengers packed planes yesterday ahead of today’s holiday, most ignored protest groups’ calls to opt out of scans and undergo a lengthier pat-down, and there were no unusual disruptions or waits at three dozen of the biggest airports, according to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

The lack of logjams at screening stations gave a boost to the TSA and marked a setback to the critics of the new body-imaging technology. Protesters had hoped that travelers requesting physical searches would create snarls and spur the agency to change procedures.

“Even before Thanksgiving, a significant majority of Americans are supporting what TSA is doing or at least is tolerating it because of the world in which we live with the terrorism threat,” said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

At most airports, including New Jersey’s Newark, Boston and Miami, only a handful of people skipped scans, the TSA said on its website. Atlanta’s airport, the world’s busiest, also operated normally.

Annual Predictions

“Every year naysayers predict delays and long lines --this year certainly even more with the opt-out movements,” said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for TSA’s northeast region, which encompasses New York, New England, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. “Those predictions aren’t coming to fruition.”

LaGuardia workers saw no evidence of slowdowns from passengers requesting pat-downs, General Manager Thomas Bosco told reporters.

“I can understand that people may be uncomfortable, but to protest and go that far, it’s ridiculous,” said Albert Ortiz, 24, a third-year law student at Fordham University in New York who was bound for Dallas from LaGuardia.

Lines at O’Hare International Airport, a hub for United Continental Holdings Inc. and AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, ran no longer than any day before Thanksgiving, said Karen Pride, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Aviation.

More than 400 body scanners, which are designed to detect non-metallic weapons beneath clothing, have been installed in at least 70 U.S. airports. Fewer than 50 were in use a year ago, TSA has said.

Braced for Tie-Ups

While fewer than a fifth of airport security lanes have the scanners in place of traditional metal detectors, officials around the U.S. braced for tie-ups on a day when the Air Transport Association projected more than 2 million people would board planes.

“A lot of leisure travelers don’t have much experience with this,” said George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Washington. Most Americans regard scanners as a necessary evil, he said, and fallout from protests over their use seemed to be “a little bit less than expected.”

The next test of the technology amid larger-than-usual crowds will come on Sunday, Nov. 28, as leisure fliers head home and business travel picks up again after the holiday.

TSA has accelerated adoption of the scanners since a Northwest Airlines passenger tried to blow up a flight to Detroit on Dec. 25 by igniting explosives in his underpants that failed to fully detonate.

Travelers who opt out of a scan must submit to a pat-down, with agents using the palm side of their hands and fingers instead of the back, which was the previous practice. Agents are allowed to feel around breasts and genitals for hidden items.

Health Studies

Protest group We Won’t Fly said on its website that the body scans invade travelers’ privacy as well as possibly damaging their health. The TSA has countered by citing studies showing that radiation exposure is minimal.

A dental x-ray delivers as much radiation as 1,000 to 2,000 trips through a TSA scanner, Richard Morin, a professor in the radiology department at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, said in an interview.

At Philadelphia International Airport, traveler Mary Lou Polcyn, 48, of Elwood, Illinois, said security was her overriding concern.

“Safety is No. 1, and I don’t mind being scanned or patted down if it’s for the safety of myself or my family,” she said as she sipped a cup of coffee.

Her travel challenge was more conventional than the new scanners: After starting her trip at Chicago’s O’Hare, where she faced neither a body-image check nor a pat-down, a tarmac delay there meant that she and her mother, JoAnn Polcyn, missed a connecting flight in Philadelphia to Salisbury, Maryland.

She planned to rent a car to finish their journey.

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