The biggest choice for Thanksgiving airline travelers this year might not be window or aisle, but full-body scanner or full-contact pat-down.
That's because enhanced screening ordered by the Transportation Safety Administration in the wake of an attempted terrorist attack involving cargo freight on Oct. 29 has some of the flying public crying foul over the scanners.
Testimony on Capitol Hill on Tuesday by TSA Administrator John S. Pistole focused attention on the physical screening of passengers who opt out of being screened by full-body scanners, new technology that provides TSA workers with an X-ray image of the body. The enhanced pat-down by TSA workers of passengers not going through the scanner machines has some characterizing the pat-downs as groping and an invasion of privacy.
The enhanced pat-down includes TSA agents touching passengers' inner thighs, groin areas and breasts. At the 68 airports in the nation that have full-body scanners, only 0.9 percent of passengers choose not to be scanned by the machines, according to the TSA.
Ann Davis, a TSA spokeswoman, said Wednesday that the government is aware of the public's concerns, but that the pat-down is "a critical tool" to combat the "ongoing threat to aviation.
"We appreciate there's some level of discomfort associated with the pat-downs, but they are in place for a very critical security reason," Davis said.
Full-body scanners typically take only about 20 seconds to scan a person and for a TSA worker to view the image. While pat-downs can take several minutes, the TSA doesn't anticipate long delays at airport security checkpoints during the holiday travel season, Davis said.
"This is TSA's ninth holiday season," she said. "We'll make sure that TSA lanes are fully staffed. We're in coordination with airlines, so we know what passenger volume to expect. We're ready."
On the Internet, opposition to both body scanners and physical screening is growing, according to the organizer of one protest group, called We Won't Fly.
"I would never subject myself to that," said James Babb, of We Won't Fly, adding that his website has gotten 70,000 hits in two weeks. His group is supporting a national "Opt Out Of Airport Scanner Day," scheduled for Wednesday, the busy travel day before Thanksgiving. On that day, they urge travelers to select not to be screened by the machines in favor of the longer pat-down.
"If we can bog down the 'security theater,' they will know there's a rebellion among common people," Babb said.
The New Jersey Libertarian Party is planning a demonstration at Newark Liberty International Airport, Terminal B, on Wednesday evening and will hand out literature explaining that people may choose pat-downs rather than go through body scanners.
"We're going to educate passengers that they can opt out," said Jay Edgar, chair of the New Jersey Libertarian Party.
Pistole, in a statement reported by The Associated Press earlier this week, said that discouraging travelers from using the scanners is "irresponsible" given continuing security threats.
A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates all three airports, said the agency was not aware of and had no comment about the planned demonstration.
On Tuesday, the TSA announced "modified" pat-down procedures would be used to physically screen children younger than 12. Ongoing "concern of parents" prompted a review of procedures, Davis said.