Travelers, lawmakers up in arms over airport security measures

As the Thanksgiving holiday approaches, 1.6 million travelers are expected to fly. How will passengers deal with new airport security measures critics say invade personal privacy?

Ted S. Warren/AP
A woman undergoes a pat-down during TSA security screening, Friday, Nov. 19, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle.
American Civil Liberties Union

As the high-travel Thanksgiving holiday approaches, travelers and lawmakers are up in arms over airport security measures.

On special web sites, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the U.S. Travel Association have been getting thousands of complaints. Facebook and Twitter are smoking with posted outrage.

In response to terrorist threats, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) now gives airline passengers two choices: Get a full-body scan using low-dose radiation that shows a naked image – everything from head to toe – which may or not be harmful to one’s health, depending on the expert cited. Or refuse the scan and have a stranger run his or her hands over every part of your body.

Related: Are TSA pat-downs and full-body scans unconstitutional?

Critics call it a no-win choice: Get zapped or get groped.

“With the holiday travel season fast approaching, we need to make sure that security measures are in place that actually make us more secure without compromising passenger privacy,” says the ACLU, which is urging people to sign its petition to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

In Washington, meanwhile, Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas has introduced the “American Traveler Dignity Act.”

“It removes the immunity from anybody in the federal government that does anything that you or I can’t do,” says Paul. “If you can’t grope another person and if you can’t X-ray people and endanger them with possible X-rays, you can’t take nude photographs of individuals, why do we allow the government to do it?”

The congressional concern is bipartisan.

Reps. Bennie Thompson (D) of Mississippi and Sheila Jackson Lee (D) of Texas (who chair the Committee on Homeland Security and the transportation security and infrastructure subcommittee, respectively) have asked the TSA for detailed information on the new enhanced security system and how the agency is handling complaints.

“Before implementing this new, more invasive pat down procedure, as a preliminary matter, TSA should have had a conversation with the American public about the need for these changes,” they wrote to TSA administrator John Pistole Friday. “Even before that conversation, TSA should have endeavored to ensure that these changes did not run afoul of privacy and civil liberties. “

This Wednesday has been designated “National Opt-Out Day” in which travelers have been asked to refuse the relatively quick X-ray scan, which means that already long lines could become even longer as people wait to be patted down – a sort of slowdown meant to jam up the security system but which could also cause thousands of passengers to miss flights.

On its web site and Facebook page, the U.S. Travel Association (which represents some 1,700 travel businesses) is surveying travelers’ personal experiences, which it is forwarding to Congress and the White House.

As the debate continues, the use of the controversial scanners around the country is increasing.

“The number of scanners jumped from 40 at the start of this year to 373 installed at 68 airports across the USA as of last week,” reports USA today. “The TSA is scheduled to have deployed 500 scanners, which cost roughly $170,000 each, by Dec. 31, and a total of 1,000 by the end of 2011.”

Secretary Napolitano has asked for patience with the new enhanced security system.

But speaking at the Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport this week she also said, “If there are adjustments we need to make to these procedures as we move forward, we have an open ear. We will listen."

The coming days will be a major test of the system – and of travelers’ patience.

The AAA estimates that 42.2 million Americans will be traveling – 1.6 million of them by air.

RELATED: What protections do you have during a TSA screening?

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