Friday, 19 November 2010

Backscatter Backlash Growing

Phil Gast

A growing pilot and passenger revolt over full-body scans and what many consider intrusive pat-downs couldn’t have come at a worse time for the nation’s air travel system.

Thanksgiving, the busiest travel time of the year, is less than two weeks away.

Grassroots groups are urging travelers to either not fly or to protest by opting out of the full-body scanners and undergo time-consuming pat-downs instead.

Such concerns prompted a meeting Friday of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano with leaders of travel industry groups.

Napolitano met with the U.S.Travel Association and 20 travel companies “to underscore the Department’s continued commitment to partnering with the nation’s travel and tourism industry to facilitate the flow of trade and travel while maintaining high security standards to protect the American people,” the department said in a statement.

Federal officials have increased security in the wake of plots attributed to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Industry leaders are worried about the grassroots backlash to Transportation Security Administration security procedures. Some pilots, passengers and flight attendants have chosen to opt out of the revealing scans.

More of the units are arriving at airports, with 1,000 expected to be in place by the end of 2011.

“While the meeting with Secretary Napolitano was informative, it was not entirely reassuring,” the U.S. Travel Association said in a statement.

“We certainly understand the challenges that DHS confronts, but the question remains, ‘where do we draw the line’? Our country desperately needs a long-term vision for aviation security screening, rather than an endless reaction to yesterday’s threat,” the statement said. “At the same time, fundamental American values must be protected.”

The travel industry is concerned that consumers may decide not to take a plane to Aunt Gertrude’s for the holiday.

“We have received hundreds of e-mails and phone calls from travelers vowing to stop flying,” Geoff Freeman, an executive vice president of the U.S. Travel Association, told Reuters.

A 2008 survey found that air travelers “avoided” 41 million trips because they believed the air travel system was either “broken” or in need of “moderate correction,” the U.S. Travel Association said. The decisions cost airlines $9.4 billion, the survey said.

One online group, “National Opt Out Day” calls for a day of protest against the scanners on Wednesday, November 24, the busiest travel day of the year.

Another group argues the TSA should remove the scanners from all airports. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a non-profit privacy advocacy group, is taking legal action, saying the TSA should be required to conduct a public rule-making to evaluate the privacy, security and health risks caused by the body scanners.

Pilots’ unions for US Airways and American Airlines are urging their members to avoid full-body scanning at airport security checkpoints, citing health risks and concerns about intrusiveness and security officer behavior.

“Pilots should NOT submit to AIT (Advanced Imaging Technology) screening,” wrote Capt. Mike Cleary, president of the U.S. Airline Pilots Association, in a letter to members this week. USAPA represents more than 5,000 US Airways pilots.

“Based on currently available medical information, USAPA has determined that frequent exposure to TSA-operated scanner devices may subject pilots to significant health risks,” Cleary wrote.


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