- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The airline security kerfuffle and the nation’s slow economic recovery aren’t undermining an uptick in Thanksgiving travelers taking to the skies, ensuring long security lines potentially exacerbated by a planned boycott of body-scan machines Wednesday.

The Air Transport Association of America, the industry trade association for leading U.S. airlines, says it expects a 3.5 percent increase in the number of passengers traveling on domestic airlines this Thanksgiving holiday season compared with last year.

“It is reassuring to see travel levels rebounding with the stronger economy,” said ATA President and Chief Executive Officer James C. May. “While modest, the recovery is particularly encouraging given the deep hole that this industry was in a year ago.”

AAA, the nation’s largest travel club, predicts 1.62 million people will fly between Tuesday and Sunday - up from 1.57 million in 2009.

But a poll shows that air travelers who didn’t cancel holiday reservations over new security procedures are likely to look for alternatives in the future.

A Zogby International Poll released Tuesday shows that the new security polices will cause 48 percent of Americans — and 42 percent of frequent fliers — to chose a different mode of transportation when possible.

Overall, 61 percent of the survey’s respondents, who were polled between Friday and Monday, oppose the use of full body scans and pat-downs. Republicans, at 69 percent, and independent voters, at 65 percent, disagreed in greater numbers than the 50 percent of Democrats who opposed the polices.

The airline industry publicly is taking a wait-and-see approach to the body scanners. ATA’s Mr. May said the group was “working with the government to help assure appropriate recognition of these concerns.”

The Transportation Security Administration’s so-called “naked X-ray” machines, which take an outline image of a person’s body, and more invasive pat-downs have caused TSA Administrator John Pistole to go on the defensive in recent days. On Wednesday, he said the agency is asking government security specialists whether there is a way to make the security pat-down less invasive but just as thorough.

Regardless of the public’s penchant for flying — and all it currently entails — the airplane still will take a back seat to the automobile as the preferred mode of Thanksgiving travel.

Nearly 40 million Americans are expected to drive 50 or more miles — at least 2 million more than in 2009, according to AAA. Another 887,000 will travel by train, bus, boat or other means of transportation.

ATA said that, as with typical Thanksgiving holiday travel periods, average daily airline capacity this year will be almost 90 percent on the busiest days. The group expects the busiest day of the 12-day holiday travel period to be Sunday, after Thanksgiving.

ATA spokesman David Castelveter said it’s too early to know whether the new security measures will have a long-term adverse effect on U.S. airlines.

“We’ve been hearing from customers about the intrusive nature of the pat-downs, but we’ve also been hearing from customers who say when they fly they want to know that everybody on the airplane has been appropriately screened to assure their safety,” he said.

Mr. Castelveter added that public outcries regarding beefed-up airport security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks eventually waned.

“From time to time you hear these complaints,” he said. “I don’t know if this will be short-lived or something that festers.” A loosely organized “National Opt-Out Day” boycott of body scans is planned for Wednesday. Protest organizers are asking passengers to refuse the body scans and instead request full manual pat-downs by security officials.

Body scans take as little as 10 seconds, but people who decline the process must submit to pat-downs, which take much longer. That could cause a domino effect of delays at airports nationwide.

Undercover tests by government security specialists factored into the Obama administration’s decision to use a more thorough pat-down so that screeners can catch a bomb hidden in a traveler’s underwear.

A man charged in an attempt to bomb an airliner last Christmas Day is alleged to have hidden a bomb in his underwear.

With the TSA spending billions of dollars on the body scanner program, some critics say the money was ill spent.

“The chance of getting on a plane with a terrorist event is one in 20 million,” said John Mueller, an Ohio State University political science professor who studies security and terrorism issues. “How much you want to spend to reduce it from one in 20 million to one in 22 million or something?”

Mr. Mueller added that spending excessive amounts of money isn’t always the answer to thwarting terrorist activities and noted that potential airline saboteurs routinely use unsophisticated means.

“The big [terrorist] innovation was to move the [explosives] from the shoes to the underwear,” he said. “We’re not dealing with people who can figure out security measures.”

• Shaun Waterman contributed to this article, which is based in part on a wire service report.

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