As if air travel over the Thanksgiving holiday isn't tough enough, it could be even worse this year: Airports could see even more disruptions because of a loosely organized Internet boycott of full-body scans.
CHICAGO — As if air travel over the Thanksgiving holiday isn't tough enough, it could be even worse this year: Airports could see even more disruptions because of a loosely organized Internet boycott of full-body scans.
Even if only a small percentage of passengers participate, experts say it could mean longer lines, bigger delays and hotter tempers.
The protest, National Opt-Out Day, is scheduled for Wednesday to coincide with the busiest travel day of the year.
"Just one or two recalcitrant passengers at an airport is all it takes to cause huge delays," said Paul Ruden, a spokesman for the American Society of Travel Agents, which has warned its more than 8,000 members about delays resulting from the body-scanner boycott. "It doesn't take much to mess things up anyway — especially if someone purposely tries to mess it up."
Body scans take as little as 10 seconds, but people who decline the process must submit to a full pat-down, which takes much longer. That could cause a cascade of delays at dozens of major airports, including those in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta. "I don't think it would take that much on the busiest day of the year to slow things down," said Gerry Berry, a Florida-based airport security expert. "If I was an airport guy, a screener, a traveler — I'd be concerned."
Not all airports have the machines, which resemble large refrigerators. And not all travelers are selected for scans. But Berry estimated that up to 20 percent of holiday fliers will be asked to use the full-body machines — meaning tens of thousands could be in a position to protest.
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.
The protest was conceived in early November by Brian Sodergren of Ashburn, Va., who built a one-page website urging people to decline the scans.
Public interest in the protest boomed this week after an Oceanside, Calif., man named John Tyner famously 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.
Other groups have since taken up Sodergren's cause.
"I had no idea what was being started and just how upset people were," said Sodergren, a health industry employee. "I'm just a guy who put a website up."
The Transportation Security Administration has a new pat-down procedure that includes a security worker running a hand up the inside of passengers' legs and along the cheek of the buttocks, as well as making direct contact with the groin area.
Pat-downs often take up to four minutes, according to the TSA's website, though that could be longer if someone requests it be done in a room out of public view or if an ill-at-ease traveler asks for a full explanation of the procedure beforehand.
Factoring in those time estimates, it would take a total of around 15 minutes to put 100 people through a body scan — but at least six hours to pat down the same number of travelers.
The TSA's Chicago spokesman, Jim Fotenos, would not disclose how many travelers are normally selected for scans. He said only "a relatively small percentage" normally need pat-downs.
Fotenos declined to say if the agency was taking precautionary steps ahead of the protest.
On Friday, TSA head John Pistole said the close-quarter body inspections are unavoidable in a time of terrorist threats.
Pistole acknowledged the public distaste for more intense security, particularly hand pat-downs, and called it a "challenge" for federal authorities and airport screeners.
Also Friday, the TSA agreed to allow airline pilots to skip security scanning and pat-downs. According to pilot groups, pilots in uniform on airline business would be allowed to pass security by presenting two photo IDs, one from their company and one from the government, to be checked against a secure flight crew database.