November 24, 2010 in Nation/World, Travel

TSA urges Thanksgiving airport security compliance

Associated Press
 

CHICAGO — Holiday travelers dismayed by airport body scans planned protests at bustling airports today, while the head of the nation’s transport security agency urged passengers to comply with searches to reduce the possibility of delays on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

A loosely organized effort dubbed National Opt-Out Day plans to use flyers, T-shirts and, in one case, a Scottish kilt to highlight what some call unnecessarily intrusive security screenings. Others feared holdups: More than 40 million people plan to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday, according to AAA, with just more than 1.6 million flying — a 3.5 percent increase in fliers from last year.

But so far, concerns about delays had not materialized. Wait times for security checks at major U.S. airports were 20 minutes or less and no serious disruptions were reported early Wednesday.

Retirees Bill and Margaret Selfridge arrived three hours early at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to ensure that security delays did not make them miss their flight to Washington, D.C. But it took only 10 minutes to get through the checkpoint at 8 a.m.

“Now we get to drink a lot of coffee,” Bill Selfridge said,

Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole told ABC’s “Good Morning America” Wednesday that his agency is “fully staffed” to deal with problems, and that travelers should be prepared for delays because of the planned protests.

“I just feel bad for the traveling public that’s just trying to get home for the holidays,” Pistole said, noting that TSA screeners “just want to get you through.”

Robert Shofkom wasn’t too worried about delayed flights, maybe just strong breezes.

The 43-year-old from Georgetown, Texas, said he planned for weeks to wear a traditional kilt — sans skivvies — to display his outrage over body scanners and aggressive pat-downs while catching his Wednesday flight out of Austin.

“If you give them an inch, they won’t just take in inch. Pretty soon you’re getting scanned to get into a football game,” the IT specialist said.

Shofkom was momentarily disheartened when his wife informed him Tuesday that the Austin airport doesn’t yet have body scans. But he decided to wear the kilt anyway, a show of solidarity with fellow protesters who have taken to Facebook and other websites to tout plans for similarly revealing travel outfits.

One Internet-based protest group called We Won’t Fly said hundreds of activists would go to 27 U.S. airports Wednesday to pass out fliers with messages such as “You have the right to say, ‘No radiation strip search! No groping of genitals!’ Say, ‘I opt out.”’

“If 99 percent of people normally agree to go through scanners, we hope that falls to 95 percent,” said one organizer, George Donnelly, 39. “That would make it a success.”

If enough people opt for a pat-down rather than a body scan, security-line delays could quickly cascade.

Body scans for passengers chosen at random take as little as 10 seconds. New pat-down procedures, which involve a security worker touching travelers’ crotch and chest areas, can take 4 minutes or longer.

Speaking on CBS’ “Early Show,” Pistole urged travelers to “be prepared” for the scanners, and reassured them that the images can’t be relayed elsewhere.

“If you go through (a screener), it’s a blurred image seen by a security officer in another office. The images are not capable of being stored or transmitted,” Pistole said.

The full-body scanners show a traveler’s physical contours on a computer in a private room removed from security checkpoints. But critics say they amount to virtual strip searches.

Jonathan Schaeffer was planning to head to the Baltimore airport, where he said he would hand out copies of the constitution and a pamphlet explaining how to opt out of the full-body search.

“I think it should be emphasized that . the delays are because of the protocol that the TSA is refusing to revise,” he said.

About 70 airports nationwide have more than 400 of the refrigerator-sized imaging units. Only around 20 percent of travelers are asked to go through them, but passengers cannot opt out of both the scan and the pat-down once they have been randomly selected for the enhanced searches.

Officials say the procedures are necessary to ward off terror attacks like the attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound plane last Christmas by a Nigerian man who stashed explosives in his underwear.

Several travel companies, including Travelocity, planned on-site monitoring at airports Wednesday to try to gauge where and why delays happen. But with a vicious storm already hindering travel in the Pacific Northwest, determining if weather or protests are behind delays across the vastly interconnected air travel system could be nearly impossible.

The weather was shaping up to make travel difficult elsewhere, too. Severe storms were expected to delay air travelers and drivers from St. Louis to Tulsa, Okla., and heavy rain was also forecast in a stretch of the country from Ohio to eastern Iowa. Windy conditions were expected in New England, which could also create potential snags for air travelers.

Light freezing drizzle and light snow are forecast for parts of northern Iowa, southern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota, North Dakotans are bracing for a blast of below zero wind chills and up to 8 inches of snow in some spots.

“Pay very close attention to conditions and if you can postpone travel — I would certainly recommend it,” said Jeff Savadel, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Bismark, N.D.

One of the relatively few passengers at Minneapolis-St. Paul who did get a pat down was a visibly pregnant Emily Willits of Minneapolis, who is due in January. She declined the body scan because she was concerned about what it would do to the baby.

“I don’t know why they picked me out, but that’s why I didn’t want to go through the scanner, to protect the baby,” she said, adding that she didn’t think the pat down was unnecessarily intrusive.

Wednesday’s planned protest is the brainchild of Brian Sodergren of Ashburn, Va., who constructed a one-page website early this month urging people to decline scans.

But public interest boomed only after an Oceanside, Calif., man named John Tyner resisted a scan and groin check at the San Diego airport with the words, “If you touch my junk, I’ll have you arrested.” A cell-phone video of the incident went viral.

Tyner’s words became famous, spawning online sales of T-shirts, bumper stickers and even underwear emblazoned with the words, “Don’t Touch My Junk!” A Google search of the phrase on Tuesday registered 4.2 million hits.

Saturday Night Live jumped on the controversy last weekend, with a minute-long skit equating the TSA with a dating service. The skit ends: “It’s our business to touch yours.”

© Copyright 2010 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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