Airport travel starts smoothly, with no sign of delays from scanner protests

By Derek Kravitz and Kafia A. Hosh
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 3:06 PM

With thousands of Thanksgiving travelers headed to airports Wednesday, National Opt-Out Day, a protest ignited by new passenger-screening techniques, appeared to fizzle.

Reports from Washington's three major airports suggested that few people were protesting the full-body scans that are the focus of the opt-out effort. The protest's organizers say the blurry images of passengers and their undergarments are an invasion of privacy.

Across the country, security lines moved smoothly, with many passengers walking through full-body X-ray machines with few issues, airlines and the Transportation Security Administration said.

Organizers of National Opt-Out Day took the easy flow of airport travel as evidence that many passengers had simply stayed home. Wednesday and Sunday are widely expected to be the two busiest days of the Thanksgiving holiday for most airports.

"What else could it be? We've been hearing for weeks about how angry people are, and now things are running smoothly? I think people heeded the advice and stayed home," said James Babb, an Eagleville, Pa., marketing executive who started the We Won't Fly campaign.

But Tara Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the independent body that oversees Reagan National and Dulles International airports, said passenger traffic was tracking with airline estimates, which predicted that about 138,000 people would fly out of both Virginia airports on Wednesday.

At Reagan's Terminal A, checkpoint lines moved quickly as a recorded message from TSA Administrator John Pistole played overhead. About half the passengers who were walking through a screening station with a full-body X-ray scanner in service were instead directed to a neighboring metal detector. Few seemed to mind either way.

At Dulles, Estelle Rogers, 62, of Northwest Washington was "shocked" by the calm scene.

"It looks less than a typical weekday," she said, scanning the terminal. "There were so many stories about how bad it was going to be."

Through Wednesday afternoon, wait times at some of the nation's busiest airports - Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York-LaGuardia, Phoenix, San Diego, St. Louis and Seattle-Tacoma - were minimal, according to the TSA's blog. Many wait times were five minutes or less. At one point, security officers at Newark Liberty International Airport outnumbered passengers, the TSA said.

"Things are going smoothly," TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said in a statement. "We are thankful the traveling public is partnering with us on one of the busiest travel days of the year."

Just say no, protest urges

The opt-out campaign urged passengers to say no to being scanned by one of the more than 400 imaging machines at nearly 70 airports nationwide. Instead, they would opt for a public pat-down, a procedure that has been criticized as too invasive because a TSA officer's hands slide over genitals and breasts.

Organizers of the protest, which began online a little more than two weeks ago, say they want to focus the growing anger over the TSA's enhanced security procedures, and they are willing to risk long delays and making other travelers mad to do it. The agency implemented the enhanced techniques after a failed terrorist plot late last month to blow up cargo planes headed to the United States.

One unruly passenger or several travelers opting out could spell a long day at the airport for many others. A full-body scan usually takes five seconds, with an extra 15 to 30 seconds to produce the images. A full-body pat-down by a security official of the same sex takes at least twice as long, one to two minutes on average, according to video of the frisks.

"I just want to know if the TSA workers actually believe they are keeping people safe by feeling us up if we opt out of the full-body scan," said Cara Eshleman, a baker from Arlington County who is flying out of Reagan National Airport on Wednesday and plans to opt out if she is directed to a full-body scanner. "It's too bad I already bought my ticket. If I'd have found out about this before, I wouldn't be going anywhere for the holidays."

At Dulles, Lori and Roger James finished a late breakfast before heading to the security gates.

The Scottsdale, Ariz., couple had a nine-hour layover before a flight to South Africa. They both planned to go through a metal detector or body scanner because it's "quick and easy," Lori James said. Roger James frowned at the idea of a pat-down.

"They ain't touching me," he said, shaking his head.

Reginald Henry, who has worked as a TSA officer at Reagan for seven years, said he has handled passenger pat-downs the same way as other security policies - and has received few complaints.

"My interactions with passengers have all been positive," said Henry, of Fort Washington. "I tell them what I am going to do as I am doing it, so it is not a surprise to them. . . . I treat everyone the way I would want to be treated. Some folks come to the airport already stressed out about traveling, so I try to put them at ease."

Criticisms of protest

Some aviation security experts say the public firestorm is largely being fueled by a few privacy-obsessed individuals, many of them self-identified as libertarians, and is not emblematic of the wider feeling among Americans that such screening, although intrusive, is necessary to ward off terrorist attacks.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Monday found that 32 percent of Americans object to the full-body X-ray machines, 35 percent say they may present a health risk, and 50 percent oppose the new pat-down searches.

A majority of those surveyed in the Post-ABC poll supported using passenger profiling.

Several aviation security groups have consulted with Israeli officials, whose Shin Bet security service at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport routinely frisks passengers thoroughly and asks specific questions about a traveler's job, home town, trip plans and other personal information.

"People don't see the intelligence. The threat is real and persistent," said Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University. "There is no single silver bullet. It's a complex environment."

Less than 3 percent of the more than 35 million airline passengers who have traveled since Nov. 1 have received pat-downs, officials say. About 2,000 complaints have been filed regarding the frisks and imaging scanners, according to the TSA.

Nationwide plans

The move to opt out started Nov. 8 when an Ashburn pharmaceutical executive, Brian J. Sodergren, launched a modest Web site that encouraged travelers to opt out of the scanning machines and accept a public pat-down so that people can "see for themselves how the TSA treats law-abiding citizens." The site went viral within hours.

Two Philadelphia area men, one a marketing executive, the other a Web developer, piggybacked on the idea and, on the same day, created a slick Web site and a corresponding media campaign - one that they say has brought in more than 600,000 visitors. A map on the site shows opt-out day events planned for 20 airports Wednesday.

At Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport, a group of college students planned to hand out devices that register the amount of radiation given off by screening machines and gloves for travelers to give to TSA officers performing physical checks. In San Francisco, a passengers rights group will be monitoring pat-downs and screenings from an upstairs restaurant, with camera crews from ABC's "Nightline" in tow. And in Philadelphia, a demonstration is planned along the airport terminal's sidewalks for several hours, with a post-protest party set for the airport Marriott bar Wednesday evening.

"I never realized the nerve I was tapping into," Sodergren said in an interview this week. "But a lot of people, like me, felt like this is a gross violation of privacy and the policy needs to change."

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