TSA screening protest fails to take off at U.S. airports

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 24, 2010 

WASHINGTON — Unwilling to gamble with their on-time arrivals, the nation's airline passengers on Wednesday ignored calls to protest heightened airport security measures on the busiest travel day of the year.

Airports from Los Angeles to New York reported no major passenger-related slowdowns as of Wednesday evening, as the Thanksgiving travel crush reached its peak with an estimated 1.6 million people taking to the skies.

At the Sea-Tac Airport between Seattle and Tacoma, the longest lines Wednesday morning formed at Starbucks. Travelers were able to proceed from the check-in counter through security checkpoints and on to their respective gates without delay. Airport observers noted that crowds were thin compared even to a non-holiday weekday.

The Transportation Security Administration was bracing for many passengers to request pat-down searches on Wednesday as a protest against new full-body screening machines that provide revealing images of a passenger's naked body to security officers.

The manual searches can take up to four minutes to administer and could quickly cause major delays if enough passengers requested them. But the share of fliers who did so on Wednesday — about 1 percent — was about the same as historic levels, said Lauren Gaches, a TSA spokeswoman.

"We were all mentally prepared for what was going to happen, but nothing happened," said Ricky McCoy, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, Local 777, which represents TSA officers in Wisconsin and Illinois.

McCoy said only six people opted out at his security checkpoint at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, and they did so because they were unfamiliar or frightened by the screening machines, not because of a protest, McCoy said.

The day was uneventful at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport.

"It appears that TSA and the airlines are staffed appropriately with this being a peak travel day," said airport spokesman Jeff Lea. "Things are running smoothly."

John Pistole, the TSA administrator, and other travel industry officials had cautioned that passengers who protested on Wednesday risked missing their own flight and forcing others to miss theirs.

"Every traveler is a critical partner in TSA's efforts to keep our skies safe, and I know and appreciate that the vast majority of Americans recognize and respect the important work we do," Pistole said Wednesday.

The flying public appears to have taken Pistole's message to heart. Other than some scattered reports of passengers holding signs or wearing outrageous clothing, the protest seems to have fizzled nationwide.

At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, Paul Cho arrived two hours before his scheduled flight home to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and sailed through security Wednesday morning. He saw no evidence that the TSA's new screening procedures were causing delays.

"I was expecting a lot worse," said Cho, a consultant visiting Texas on business. Cho cleared security in about 10 minutes. "Now I have an hour and a half with nothing to do. You learn to accept it," he said.

At Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, a public service announcement reassured people in line that they could "opt out" of going through the body scanners. However, most travelers went through anyway. A cluster of TV cameramen filmed brisk-moving lines.

"It's pretty dead," said American Airlines Pilot Doug Johnston, who arrived in Washington to visit relatives after a four-day trip to El Paso, New Orleans and Chicago. "Maybe all the bad advertising discouraged people from traveling."

Passengers who refuse to pass through the machines or who set off an alarm during the screening process are subjected to enhanced pat-down searches by TSA officers. In the new searches, officers run their hands down passengers' legs and along their buttocks and also touch their groin area.

Only 3 percent of all passengers get a pat-down, but the TSA has received roughly 2,000 complaints since the more aggressive searches began earlier this month without any notice.

Brian Sodergren of Ashburn, Va., became the unofficial leader of the would-be protest when he set up a National Opt-Out Day website and urged passengers to opt-out of the full-body screening.

However, as of noon, only one traveler at Miami International Airport had opted for "opt out," said airport spokesman Greg Chin. On a normal day, federal screeners get about 20 opt-out requests, Chin said.

Sodergren didn't return e-mails and phone calls for comment.

McCoy, the TSA officer from O'Hare, said the agency "really dropped the ball" by not informing travelers about the new security measures in advance. TSA administrator John Pistole said he didn't formally announce the new measures to avoid tipping off terrorists.

But John Gage, the national president of the AFGE, said the TSA should provide information sheets to each passenger explaining the new measures.

"This absence of information has resulted in a backlash against the character and professionalism of (TSA officers)," Gage said in a statement last week.

(James H. Burnett III of The Miami Herald, John Gillie, of The (Tacoma) News Tribune, Gordon Dixon of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and Will Buss of the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat contributed to this article.)

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