Opt-Out Day could create headaches for fliers

A Transportation Security Administration worker pats down a traveler during a search at Denver International Airport. Wednesday is expected to be the busiest travel day of the Thanksgiving holiday.
A Transportation Security Administration worker pats down a traveler during a search at Denver International Airport. Wednesday is expected to be the busiest travel day of the Thanksgiving holiday. (Rick Wilking)
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By Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010

They are white-collar professionals, parents and frequent travelers with full-time jobs. But they're also activists, leading a fast-moving grass-roots movement designed to change the federal government's policy about full-body X-ray scanners and physical pat-downs.

But for thousands of Thanksgiving airline passengers, Wednesday's National Opt-Out Day, a protest that began online a little more than two weeks ago, could be a headache leading to long delays at airport checkpoints.

Organizers say they want to focus growing anger against the Transportation Security Administration's enhanced security procedures. The agency implemented the techniques after a failed terrorist plot late last month to blow up cargo planes headed to the United States.

The opt-out campaign is a low-dose rebellion in which passengers say no to the more than 400 imaging machines in use at nearly 70 airports nationwide. Instead, they will opt for a public frisking, which has been criticized as being too invasive because sliding hands probe clothed genitalia and breasts.

"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."

One unruly passenger or several travelers opting out could spell a long day at the airport for many others. A full-body imaging scan usually takes five seconds, with an extra 15 to 30 seconds to produce the blurry but scantily clad images of passengers and their undergarments. 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.

Wednesday is expected to be the busiest travel day of this year's Thanksgiving holiday. Complicating matters is a weather forecast calling for rain, snow and strong winds across the upper Midwest, which could cause additional delays.

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 larger 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.

"I think the 'opt out' is going to be a huge bust. It's clearly a fringe group that's concerned about privacy," said Billie Vincent, a former director of aviation security at the Federal Aviation Administration who now works as a security consultant in Chantilly. "If you're going to find something in someone's crotch, you can't equivocate."

Vincent and others are pushing for more profiling of passengers - an idea supported by 70 percent of those surveyed in the Post-ABC poll. 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."


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