Holiday travelers dismayed by airport body scans planned protests at bustling airports Wednesday, 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.
Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole told ABC’s “Good Morning America” Wednesday that his agency is “fully staffed” to deal with problems, but that travelers should expect delays because of the planned protests at airports across the country.
“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.
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 Western states Tuesday, 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 outside of the Northwest, too. Severe storms could 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.
At a main checkpoint in Atlanta on Tuesday, a few passengers asked to step through a scanner grimaced before walking through, while others seemed more bemused than annoyed.
Out of 30 asked to go through during a half-hour period, just two opted for a pat-down. Karen Keebler, 54, of Atlanta said later that her main concern was the low-level radiation. The TSA says the scans emit very low radiation and aren’t a health risk.
“I just think the less radiation the better, and if you can opt out, you need to,” she said.
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.”
Pilots and flight attendants also had complained about being subject to body scans and pat-downs. On Friday the TSA said pilots could avoid the more intense screening. TSA spokesman Nick Kimball confirmed the same for flight attendants Tuesday.
Both groups must show photo ID and go through metal detectors. If that sets off an alarm, they may still get a pat-down in some cases, he said.
Publicity or no, some predicted little fallout from the planned protest, with many travelers at airports Tuesday deriding the effort and saying the stepped-up security measures made them feel safer.
“Tell all the people whining about getting patted down to remember 9/11,” he said. “They’re all whine-bags.”
Marc Gruber, eating lunch at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International airport, agreed.
“I think there ought to be two flights,” said the 53-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., “one for people who want to be scanned and one for people who don’t want to be scanned.”
AP writers Ted Shaffrey in New York; Cara Rubinsky and Kate Brumback in Atlanta; Jay Reeves in Birmingham, Alabama; and Tony Winton in Miami contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2010 The Associated Press