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Few delays reported at airport security checkpoints

Transportation officials had been bracing for the possibility of checkpoint jams brought about by people refusing to undergo full-body scans or objecting to pat-down screenings. But the lines were moving easily at many of the nation's airport hubs.

November 24, 2010|By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau
  • Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa goes through a body scanner at LAX on Monday.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa goes through a body scanner at LAX… (Nick Ut / Associated Press )

Reporting from Washington — Airport officials and holiday travelers alike reported few issues at many of the nation's airport hubs Wednesday, the busiest travel day yet since new, more aggressive airport inspection measures were implemented.

Transportation officials had been bracing for the possibility of checkpoint jams brought about by a loosely-knit, Internet-organized "opt out" day of protest against the use of full body scanners and pat-down screenings, deploying additional agents to locations with the advanced imaging machines.

But airport officials in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Denver and New York — among the nation's most heavily traveled facilities — reported that crowds were moving easily through checkpoints, with little or no disruptions.

The Department of Homeland Security had deployed additional agents to locations that have the advanced imaging scanners. But officials and the airline industry were hopeful that passengers' desire to reach their destinations in time for the Thanksgiving holiday would outweigh any privacy concerns.

"One of the great things about our country is people can peacefully protest," said TSA chief John Pistole. "The vast majority of travelers want to get home to be with loved ones."

Although some passengers at Los Angeles International Airport expressed concern about new security precautions, the lines moved briskly with little wait.

"It's been nothing out of the ordinary," said Nico Melendez, a spokesman for the Transportation Safety Administration. "We've had minimal wait times around the country. We've only seen a handful of people opt out from the X-ray machine scanners in favor of the pat-downs."

Screeners at the US Airways terminal were not using the full-body X-ray machines Wednesday morning. About 20 protesters organized by the website were passing out fliers reminding people they have the right to opt out of the full-body scans.

They also handed out stickers that read, "Don't touch my junk," the now-famous words used by Oceanside resident John Tyner as he recently underwent a pat-down at San Diego International Airport.

"Some people are shocked. Others are opting out," said protester Michelle Fields, 22, a political science major at Pepperdine University.

But most passengers paid little attention to the protesters — or the screenings.

Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Phil Fontanetta said LAPD officers were being paired up with LAX police officers scattered throughout the terminals.

"People want to get home to ma and grandma," Fontanetta said. "They smell the turkey."

The TSA implemented the new security measures Nov. 1 in response to the threat posed by PETN, an explosive powder that has been a staple of Al Qaeda bomb-makers for nearly a decade.

But an online protest quickly followed, fueled by widely circulated Internet videos. In one video, TSA agents at the Salt Lake City airport were performing a pat-down on a young boy after his father decided to remove the boy's shirt. In another widely seen YouTube clip, Tyner warns agents not to "touch my junk" as he refuses to submit to either a full-body scan or a pat-down.

At John Wayne Airport in Orange County, crowds seemed to be modest, lines short and tempers under control.

Victor Allen, 38, a Seattle computer programmer visiting his family in California for Thanksgiving, said that when he passed through security at the Seattle-Tacoma airport Wednesday morning he noticed that body-scanners were on hand but also not in use.

"My impression was they put all their nicest, friendliest staff members on today," Allen said.

Based on experiences like Allen's, James Babb, one of the organizers of the We Won't Fly protest, declared the protest a success.

"We've got a massive swelling of support, and TSA, they have no choice but to accommodate the demand for travelers that just don't want to be abused," he said. "Even if their official policy hasn't changed, they definitely got the word that everyone is watching."

TSA officials said that they always staff up for busy travel periods and have not noticed any uptick in travelers opting out of body scans. Passenger volume is also up 3.5% over last years.

An estimated 42 million Americans are to be traveling more than 50 miles Wednesday to reach a holiday destination. Of that number, up to 2 million are expected to fly.

The Air Transport Assn., which represents the nation's airlines, says 24 million Americans will travel by air during the 12-day Thanksgiving period, with Wednesday the third-busiest day of that period. The industry group said it has received a range of feedback from customers about the new security measures, but sensed no drop-off in ticket sales.

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