Air Travelers Cope During Busiest Travel Season

An Internet campaign is urging Thanksgiving travelers to "opt-out" of see-all body scanners in protest of increased airport security measures. We check in with Karen Grigsby Bates in Los Angeles, Cheryl Corley in Chicago and Georgia Public Radio's Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta to see how passengers are moving through security.

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The day before Thanksgiving is one of the busiest days of the year for airports; throw in threatened protests over passenger screening methods and the result could be chaos. But the so-called opt-out day has not caused chaos. We're going to hear from three airports now. First, to Los Angeles and NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: In anticipation of the busiest day of the busiest travel weekend of the year, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tested out the new scanners himself and urged passengers to use them.

Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Democrat, Los Angeles): We have a responsibility, everybody, to do everything we can, to employ every tool we can and protect the public.

BATES: As passengers begin to file into the Southwest air terminal at Los Angeles International Airport, they were greeted by several people from We Won't Fly, an organization that's urging passengers to opt-out of what they see as an overly intrusive body scan.

Unidentified Woman #1: Hi, don't be a porn star for the TSA today.

BATES: Inside the terminal, Michele Refuge(ph) was a little shocked to see that the opt-out handout showed in pretty graphic detail how passengers would look on the screen.

Ms. MICHELE REFUGE: That's my naked body, like - really. It's doing a bit much.

BATES: But for the most part, travelers were unfazed at the prospect of being scanned or patted down. Mrs. Othea Wood(ph) seated in a wheelchair with a faux-fur throw across her knees definitely had no objections.

Ms. OTHEA WOOD: I have no complaints whatsoever.

BATES: You're okay with the scanner and if it...

Ms. WOOD: You're doggone right, if it makes us safe, we're going to be smiling and be happy.

BATES: And she said it's much better to be inconvenienced now than very sorry later on.

Mrs. WOOD: They'd be the first one to complain if they lost a loved one because of this stupidity of not being checked.

BATES: Are you going on an airplane today?

RICA(ph): Yeah.

BATES: Carrie Richardson(ph) was on route to Seattle with her frisky 3-year-old Rica.

And you're not worried about your child going through the scanner?

Ms. CARRIE RICHARDSON: No. Other things? Yes. Not the scanner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BATES: And Ed Hanley(ph) took a philosophical approach as he waited to be ticketed to Indianapolis.

Mr. ED HANLEY: Why complain? I can't do anything about it. I can complain all day, but then, what's that going to do for me, other than frustrate me more and more?

BATES: Nick Hankoff, an opt-out coordinator, said the aim of today's action wasn't to gum up the works on the busiest traveling day of the year.

Mr. NICK HANKOFF: As long as people are making a fully informed decision, we're not marching around with signs picketing or protesting. We're telling anyone that they're doing the right or wrong thing. It's up to the individual.

BATES: And as if to emphasis that this might not always be hypothetical, dozens of airport security, LAPD and TSA agents stream downstairs to the men's room near baggage claim for what turned out to be a prank call. Officer Heriberto Gonzalez and his bomb-sniffing dog Betty(ph) stood at the ready.

Mr. HERIBERTO GONZALEZ (Airport Police Officer): You were able to see downstairs, and within a matter of a minute or so, you saw so many officers respond. So thank God there was nothing going on, but had there been something, it would have been dealt with appropriately in a very expeditious manner.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, at Los Angeles International Airport.

CHERYL CORLEY: I'm Cheryl Corley at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. Just the thought of traveling the day before Thanksgiving at this airport can make a passenger queasy, but for many here, today was better than expected.

Ms. MAGGIE JOSE(ph): We came early, and so we're about two and a half hours early. We didn't know what to expect.

CORLEY: Maggie Jose was travelling to New York with her husband. There have been no protests over the full-body scanners, or the advanced imaging technology, as it's more formally called. There are no long lines of frustrated people here, no delays - in fact, pretty smooth sailing. About 189,000 people will pass through the airport today. Twenty-year-old Sydney Wofson(ph) is one of them. The Northwestern University student was travelling home to New Jersey. She doesn't think a full-body scan is a big deal.

Ms. SYDNEY WOFSON: And I don't really think they're looking at me like trying to get a look, you know, with quotation marks. Like, I just really think it's just a fast and easy way to check you, and then you're off and you go. Plus, I think a pat-down is more personal. They're like touching you.

CORLEY: Irma Reyes(ph) travelling to the Dominican Republic with her son said she initially thought she'd be okay with the scan, but now, she's not so sure.

Ms. IRMA REYES: I just heard this morning what - how detailed it is. Ooh, it's kind of creepy.

CORLEY: Justin Oberman, a former official with the TSA, is a consultant now and was at O'Hare today. He says security is much tighter than it was before 9/11 with better screeners and better technology, but he says the agency's focus should be different.

Mr. JUSTIN OBERMAN (Security Consultant): TSA was created by Congress to spend most of its time and money screening passengers at a checkpoint. We need to be spending more time trying to find people before they come to the airport.

CORLEY: But here at O'Hare, what's on people's minds today is the new screening process. Jim Fotenos, a TSA spokesman, can't say yet how many people have gone through the full-body scan or had an enhanced pat-down on this particular day, but he says the stats overall have shown most travelers aren't bothered by the new screening procedures.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, at O'Hare airport in Chicago.

SUSANNA CAPELOUTO: I'm Susanna Capelouto at Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta. This is the busiest airport in the world; 1.7 million people will move through the checkpoints here this week.

Unidentified Woman #2: I have a (unintelligible). White hot chocolate with soy.

Mr. DAVID THOMPSON(ph): The lines at Starbucks are longer than security.

CAPELOUTO: David Thompson is sipping a venti coffee right next to the security checkpoint where wait times were under 10 minutes for most of the day.

Mr. THOMPSON: I travelled the week before Thanksgiving, and it was a zoo in here. This week, it's very smooth, you know, no lines to wait us.

CAPELOUTO: That's because the TSA in Atlanta has all hands on deck. Checkpoints are fully staff, and managers are helping out answering travelers' questions about the new procedures. Spokesman Jon Allen says they are ready for opt-out protests.

Mr. JON ALLEN (Spokesman, TSA, Atlanta): We're certainly prepared for that. We've not seen any kind of impact on anything as far as wait times or any change in the percentage of passengers who are opting out of imaging technology.

CAPELOUTO: Allen says only about 3 percent of travelers will be asked to go through scanners. Ray Jones(ph) is going to Buffalo, and she says that would be her choice.

Ms. RAY JONES: I'd rather have the body scan. It doesn't matter to me what they see. I'd rather that than someone have their hands all over me.

CAPELOUTO: Like many travelers today, Jones allowed herself one more hour to get through security.

Ms. JONES: I've heard all the security issues on the television. So I said, well let me make sure I get here extra early just in case it takes longer.

CAPELOUTO: She was able to walk right up to the screeners. Meanwhile, outside, Shannon Dempsey was standing on the curb, handing out leaflets.

Ms. SHANNON DEMPSEY: Excuse me, Sir. Can I give you some information about what's being done to you today with the new scanners?

Unidentified Man #2: No thank you.

Ms. DEMPSEY: Okay. Are you aware that...

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, Ma'am, I'm aware. I'm quite aware.

CAPELOUTO: Dempsey is part of the national opt-out movement. She says success today is hard to measure.

Ms. DEMPSEY: We don't have a metric for it. We're going to see, you know, if it's going to be successful when I hand out fliers and educate people.

CAPELOUTO: Dempsey's protest spot was taken up for a while by another demonstration: AirTran flight attendants picketing stalled contract negotiations quickly outnumbered opt-out protesters. Meanwhile, the Atlanta airport has its busiest day yet to come this travel season - that will be Monday morning when business travelers mix with the crowd returning from the Thanksgiving holiday.

For NPR News, I'm Susanna Capelouto in Atlanta.

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