Protests of TSA airport pat-downs, body scanners don't delay Thanksgiving travel

By Ashley Halsey III and Derek Kravitz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 12:33 AM

A day that dawned with fears of gridlock at the security gates to America's airports turned into something less than that as a protest against scanners and pat-downs fizzled dramatically on Wednesday.

Protesters showed up in ones and twos, but not in the predicted battalions. They held up signs, passed out leaflets damning the government and delayed virtually nobody.

From New York to Los Angeles - in Atlanta, Kansas City, Phoenix, San Diego, St. Louis, Seattle and at all three major airports in the Washington region - hundreds of thousands of people launched their holiday travels without falling afoul of airport security or the clamorous minority angered by scanners that produce revealing images of the human body and pat-downs deemed too intimate.

One of the biggest holiday weekend travel delays on the East Coast happened not at the airports but on Interstate 95 in Delaware, where construction at a toll plaza renowned for backing up traffic on a regular basis did that so magnificently that the state finally threw up its hands and stopped collecting tolls.

But air passengers who had feared the worst rejoiced in swift lines and security agents seemed determined to resurrect with good cheer an image trampled in the furor over the new scanners and "enhanced" frisking of those who failed or refused them.

"I have my food. I have my water. I expected to stand in line for hours," said Judith Gilbert of Arlington County. She arrived at Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport more than three hours early for a flight to Connecticut, only to find just a handful of people in front of her in a swiftly moving line.

At Dulles International Airport, Estelle Rogers, 62, of Northwest Washington was "shocked" by the tranquility.

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

Daniel Anderson, 28, of Alexandria was preparing to board a flight at Reagan National Airport with his wife and 20-month-old daughter, Alexa.

"We gotta get to Grandma's," he said as Alexa held an Elmo doll in the security line. "The choice is to have her microwaved or felt up, but we gotta get to Grandma's, so we'll do it."

At airports, the plan for 1960s-style civil disobedience faced challenges from the outset. The first was the price of admission. An airline ticket was required to reach the point in the security chain were one could "opt out" of the scanner and demand a pat-down.

Most people who flew Wednesday bought their tickets weeks or months ago, before the protest movement came to life. The few tickets to be had carried a high price tag. And those most infuriated by the Transportation Safety Administration's new policy most likely opted out of flying entirely.

"Things are going smoothly," TSA spokesman Nicholas Kimball said in a statement.

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 piggybacked on the idea and, on the same day, created the slicker We Won't Fly Web site and a corresponding media campaign.

Organizers of the protest took the easy flow of airport travel as evidence that many passengers had simply stayed home.

"What else could it be?" said James Babb, an Eagleville, Pa., marketing executive who started the We Won't Fly campaign. "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."

Airport officials and the airlines said, however, that Wednesday was one of the busiest air travel days of the year, with 1.6 million people expected to fly.

"I think its nonsense to say people aren't flying," said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, an airline industry group. "Despite what the promoters of the opt-out say, the American people have spoken and they are undeterred. People are flying."

The lone protester Wednesday afternoon at Reagan National was a 27-year-old college student, Brad Aefsky, who drew crowds of curious passengers near the airport's Cosi restaurant. Aefsky, wearing a canvas sign on his body that read "Tyrants Sexually Assaulting Americans" on the front and "Department of Herding Sheeple" on the back, said he was frustrated with what he believed were overly intrusive security methods.

"As soon as I heard about the scanners, I knew the anger was coming," said Aefsky, who described himself as a Libertarian. "I'm probably going to be put on some terrorist watch list now."

At BWI, Jonathan Shaeffer, tall, trim and and meticulously dressed in a gray business suit, set out to challenge the government that until recently he defended.

His table, with a sign that said "Travel With Dignity," was set up in the main airport concourse. A neat array of material protesting new security measures by the TSA was spread out: a pamphlet Shaeffer wrote describing the agency's "manual groping of the genitals, breasts and buttocks" as part of the new pat-down; a petition in support of a congressional effort to curtail the TSA; copies of the Constitution; and a "complaint-compliment" form passengers could use to rate their TSA experience.

"We're calling the TSA's bluff on its policies," said Shaeffer, who said he recently left the Navy after six years as a language expert. "This is a nonpartisan issue."

He said his protest at BWI on Wednesday began as a discussion among friends on Facebook.

He got a permit from the airport for his table and set up in a designated spot. He said he was encouraging people to decline when they were asked to go through the scanners.

Shaeffer said he was alarmed by a CBS poll two weeks ago that found 81 percent of the public didn't object to the scanners. A Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week found that nearly two-thirds of Americans support the use of the machines.

"That's a real risk for our civil rights," he said. "It's baffling to me that only 20 percent of the people really care."

Gilbert, who passed through security a few hundred yards from Shaeffer's table, said she was one of the majority not bothered by the new security schemes.

"I went through the scanner two weeks ago, no problem," Gilbert said. "I believe we need to do the appropriate thing to keep the skies safe. If people have severe objections, they should take the train."

Staff writer Kafia A. Hosh contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company