Protests over the use of full-body scanners might cause longer waits in security lines at U.S. airports as travelers set out Wednesday for the Thanksgiving holiday. Officials in Seattle say they don't expect major delays, but advise travelers to get to the airport early.
Sea-Tac airport officials say they don’t expect travelers to face major delays at security checkpoints Wednesday, despite nationwide protests aimed at urging passengers to opt out of new full-body scanner screenings.
Still, with snow, cold and high winds adding to potential headaches, travelers should plan on getting to the airport early — at least two hours ahead — on what is expected to be the second-busiest day of the Thanksgiving season (Sunday will be the busiest).
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport expects about 89,000 passengers through the airport Wednesday. That’s several thousand less than the busiest travel days in summer, said spokesman Perry Cooper.
“We’re hoping everything’s going to be peaceful,” Cooper said, adding that airport security officials have been working with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the FBI and federal air marshals to head-off problems.
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“We’re understanding of folks if they want to express themselves as long as they don’t block or delay other passengers from getting onto their flights,” he said.
As part of “National Opt-Out Day,” a Seattle contingent of a grass-roots group called We Won’t Fly (www.wewontfly.com) plans to meet at Seattle’s Best Coffee inside the main terminal at noon, then go to security checkpoints to hand out information on privacy and health risks associated with the full-body scanners.
Volunteers will urge travelers to boycott the scans and opt for pat-downs instead, said Rachel Hawkridge, chair of the Washington State Libertarian Party and a We Won’t Fly Seattle-area organizer.
“Just one or two recalcitrant passengers at an airport is all it takes to cause huge delays,” Paul Ruden, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents, told The Associated Press. “It doesn’t take much to mess things up anyway — especially if someone purposely tries to mess it up.”
The scanners show a traveler’s nude image on a computer in a private room removed from security checkpoints. But critics say they amount to virtual strip-searches.
Of two types of machines in use, the “backscatter” machines installed at Sea-Tac and other airports are the most controversial because they use an X-ray technology that emits low-level radiation. TSA says the doses are safe, no more than travelers get flying two minutes in a plane at 30,000 feet, but some scientists have raised questions and called for more study.
Sea-Tac still has 35 metal detectors installed next to 14 full-body scanners at four checkpoints in the main terminal, so, depending on the length of the lines at each, not all passengers will go through the scanners.
“We’ll have extra people there based on the fact that it is busy day, and we’ll work with the passengers as needed,” TSA spokesman Dwayne Baird said.
Under the new security rules, those that are steered to a scanner can opt out and go through one of the old metal detectors instead, but they will be required to undergo pat-downs, which now include touching the genital areas and breasts.
If enough people request a pat-down, there could be delays in security lines. A body scan takes about four to seven seconds. A pat-down takes two to four minutes but could take longer if a passenger requests it be done in a private screening area.
Sea-Tac passengers can go through security at any of the four checkpoints to reach their gates. Those who hope to avoid the scanners might want to go to Checkpoint No. 4 at the north end of the terminal where there are only two scanners. Checkpoint No. 1 at the south end of the terminal near the international ticket counters has five.
TSA accelerated use of the scanners after a Nigerian man attempted to smuggle explosives in his underwear on a Christmas Day flight bound to Detroit from Amsterdam. Then, on Nov. 1, it implemented more aggressive pat-down procedures for those who require additional screening, including those who set off metal detectors.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that the procedures aren’t likely to change anytime soon.
TSA officials point to opinion polls showing that about 80 percent of the public supports the use of the scanners. About 1 percent of passenger have opted out and undergone pat-downs so far this month, TSA said.
But others say opposition has been building as the holidays approach and more people are experiencing the new procedures firsthand.
“The reaction has been very, very strong, almost visceral” Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has filed a lawsuit to stop the body scans.
“TSA is in a real bind.”
Carol Pucci: email@example.com