Did TSA cave on scanners for Thanksgiving rush?

By Daniel Tencer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010 17:28 EDT
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‘Noticeably subdued’ airports suggest people opting out of flying altogether

News reports on Thursday declared the National Opt-Out Day protest against TSA screening procedures a bust, noting short wait times at airport security screening and TSA reports that there wasn’t any spike in passengers opting out of body scanners.

But reports from travelers and local news sources suggest that at some of the busiest airports in the US the TSA has backed down and resorted to using the old screening procedures — metal detectors and less-intrusive pat-downs.

And anecdotal reports from airports across the country suggest lighter-than-expected passenger traffic, suggesting that some travelers may have decided to “opt out” of the screening procedures by not flying at all.

“One day before the the pre-Thanksgiving wave crests, Atlanta’s airport was notably subdued, vendors and travelers said, with minimal wait times and limited, if any, use of the controversial full-body scanners,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Atlanta-Hartsfield, a Delta hub, is the busiest airport in the nation.

Many of the scanners at the main security checkpoint were roped off at mid-day Tuesday. Transportation Security Administration spokesman Jonathan Allen said travelers should expect the enhanced security measures, such as the scanners, to operate “just as they would any other day.” He didn’t address why the full body scanners appeared to not be in use Tuesday.

Twitterers around the country have made similar claims about Los Angeles International as well as the airports in Seattle, San Jose and Columbus, Ohio.

Several travelers reported on social networking sites that Lambert Airport in St. Louis also appears to have abandoned body scanners for the holiday, at least for some security line-ups.

“Metal detectors only and I watched them pat down an elderly woman and it was using the old methods, and a TSA agent stands between the line and the pat-down to block pictures and people being able to clearly see it,” reports a Reddit user. KMOV in St. Louis reported that passengers arriving from Dallas appeared to be under the impression that the TSA had stopped using the body scanners.

But the St. Louis Post-Dispatch quotes a TSA spokesman who said seven people opted out of body scanners during the course of the day.

Whether the opt-out protest was successful or not, it appears air travel officials and travelers alike were surprised by the lack of passenger traffic on what is typically the busiest flying day of the year.

A restaurant manager at Atlanta-Hartsfield said she’d never seen traffic so sparse on a holiday.

“Most of the tables on the restaurant’s second floor were empty through lunchtime, and servers said on a day when they should have seen between 1,200 and 1,500 customers Tuesday, they served fewer than 500,” the AJC reported.

Kim Zetter at Wired.com reports that, at San Francisco’s airport, people in one security line-up were sent through a body scanner while those lined up at another were sent through regular metal detectors.

Passengers in one checkpoint queue were directed randomly to pass through either a standard metal detector or a ProVision millimeter wave body scanner. In a second queue, the type of screening depended on which conveyor belt the traveler lined up at: The right one went through a body scan, the left, with rare exception, put passengers through the metal detector.

If the TSA has indeed reduced the use of body scanners, at least for the busy holiday period, it’s something the agency is unlikely to admit to publicly, as it would be seen as a security risk to do so.


However, at some airports, it appears that the new, intrusive pat-down isn’t an opt-out at all — but the only choice available to travelers.

The Naples Daily News reports that at the airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, passengers in some lines were being given a pat-down due to a lack of the new body-scanning machines.

Steve and Carol Rohletter … flew to Fort Myers early on Wednesday morning to spend Thanksgiving with family … and were both subjected to the new up-close and personal pat-downs being used by the Transportation Security Administration because the line they went through happened not to have body scanners. They saw other people going through the scanners, but said they saw no problems with either security method.

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