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Air travelers are worried, but TIA reports few security checkpoint problems

TAMPA

Talk of humiliating body scans and invasive pat-downs is adding stress for holiday travelers nationwide, even discouraging some from flying.

"This makes you feel like a criminal," said Richard Figg, 78, who was being patted down Monday before leaving on a flight from Tampa to Austin, Texas.

The new procedures from the Transportation Security Administration have provoked talk of a "National Opt-Out Day," urging travelers picked for full-body scanning on Wednesday to refuse the inspection. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Monday that the government is "desperately" trying to work out a way to minimize inconvenience to travelers, and TSA officials urged the public to comply with the rules.

Despite the concerns, security operations at TIA have been running virtually problem-free, even with the new pat-down procedures, said TIA spokeswoman Brenda Geoghagan.

On Friday, one of four peak travel days during the Thanksgiving holiday stretch, only one traveler refused to be touched or screened. He caused a loud scene and eventually was escorted from the airport, she said.

For the most part, many TIA travelers may not notice much difference in their security checkpoint experience.

Most travelers will simply walk through magnetometers airports have been using for years. But some travelers may be selected for further inspection inside a body scanning machine.

Anyone who is unable, or refuses, to go through the scanning machines will go through a pat-down.

But trying to put everyone through the machines or patting everyone down would take too long. The body scanners have not been fully installed at TIA, and there are only one or two at each checkpoint. So TIA must still use the walk-through magnetometer scans.

"It just depends on how many people there are and how busy the machines are," Geoghagan said. "We still have to get these people on their flights."

That's not to say people won't notice any change, Geoghagan said.

For one, security staff will be on alert and heavily staffed during the holidays. For another, those who submit to pat-downs could experience some extreme discomfort.

At the Southwest Airlines checkpoint on Monday afternoon, some travelers —mostly elderly or handicapped — were pulled aside for pat-downs because they could not raise their arms or stand still in the body scanner machines.

One woman in a wheelchair covered her face after a female security officer felt closely around her breasts and up her pant leg.

Figg, who also uses a wheelchair, stood against a chair for balance as a male officer prodded his inseam.

"I am all for security measures and I want to feel safe on the plane,'' he said, "but I think the methodology here has some room for improvement."

Airline activity has been slowly increasing each month after an 18-month stretch of year-over-year decreases.

A report released by AAA last week projected overall travel nationwide will increase by 11.9 percent over last year's holiday week.

Automobiles will be the dominant mode of transportation, the report said, but 1.62 million people are expected to fly, an increase of 3.5 percent from last year's 1.57 million flyers.

Geoghagan said all travelers eventually have to submit to either body scans or pat-downs, eliminating the less invasive walk-through procedure.

But for now at TIA, those machines are too expensive to fully implement. Even when the airport receives new machines, she said, it could take months to properly calibrate and install them.

Meanwhile, Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole pleaded with travelers for understanding and urged them not to boycott full-body scans on Wednesday, lest their protest snarl what is already one of the busiest, most stressful flying days of the year.

Pistole said Monday that such delaying actions would only "tie up people who want to go home and see their loved ones.''

"We all wish we lived in a world where security procedures at airports weren't necessary," he said, "but that just isn't the case."

A loosely organized Internet campaign is urging people to refuse the scans on Wednesday in what is being called National Opt-Out Day. The extra time needed to pat down people could cause a cascade of delays at dozens of major airports, including those in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

"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. "It doesn't take much to mess things up anyway."

About 400 imaging units are being used nationwide. There are a total of 2,100 security lanes. That means about 80 percent of security lanes won't have the machines in place. Since the new procedures began Nov. 1, 34 million travelers have gone through checkpoints and less than 3 percent are patted down, according to the TSA.

"Most people will go through business as usual. The metal detector that we've all become used to, taking off the shoes, pouring our liquids in to the tiny little containers, business as usual for the vast majority of people," Genevieve Shaw Brown, senior editor at Travelocity, said.

Information from the Associated Press and ABC News was included in this report. Emily Nipps can be reached at nipps@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8452.

Air travelers are worried, but TIA reports few security checkpoint problems 11/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 5:04pm]
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