UPDATED 11/24/10 11:07 a.m.
CHICAGO (CBS) – On the busiest travel day of the year, the threat of a protest over security screening procedures hangs over O’Hare International Airport and the rest of the nation’s airports.
But as CBS 2’s Mai Martinez reports, there were no signs of trouble or severe backups at O’Hare as of 11 a.m., and aviation officials said the anticipated mass-protest might not materialize at all.
Several of the security checkpoint lines at O’Hare feature the controversial body-scan machines that are the subject of the protest, dubbed “National Opt-Out Day.”
LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya Reports
The protest day was created by Brian Soderberg, of Ashburn, Va., who works in the health care industry and describes himself as an “ordinary citizen.” The language on the website for the event is dramatic and frank.
“It’s the day ordinary citizens stand up for their rights, stand up for liberty, and protest the federal government’s desire to virtually strip us naked or submit to an ‘enhanced pat down’ that touches people’s breasts and genitals in an aggressive manner,” the site says. “You should never have to explain to your children, ‘Remember that no stranger can touch or see your private area, unless it’s a government employee, then it’s OK.’”
Internet-based protest group called We Won’t Fly said hundreds of activists would go to 27 U.S. airports Wednesday to pass out fliers with messages such as “You have the right to say, `No radiation strip! No groping of genitals!’ Say, `I opt out.”‘
“If 99 percent of people normally agree to go through scanners, we hope that falls to 95 percent,” said one organizer, George Donnelly, 39. “That would make it a success.”
But transportation officials have been cautioning for days that opting for a pat-down rather than a body scan could cause security lines to cascade quickly.
“Nobody likes it, but it’s a fact of life,” said former TSA administrator Justin Oberman. “The real point, though, as 3 percent of the folks today get patted down — which obviously is a small number — is that we need to continue shifting resources and focus to better intelligence, so that we can identify, before they even get to the airport, who presents a potential threat.”
Airline passengers at O’Hare didn’t seem to mind the scanners or heightened security.
“I just think it’s necessary,” passenger Chris Taylor told CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli. “There’s a lot of weird stuff going on in our world, and if that’s going to ensure my safety on an airplane, I’ll do it.”
“I don’t feel particularly violated if somebody’s trying to keep this plane up in the air for me, so a body scan is fine,” added another passenger, Richard. “I have no problem with it.”
Another traveler told Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya that she opts for the body scanner when she flies but was surprised that she randomly was selected last week for a pat down.
“To be honest it’s somewhat degrading, because you are doing it in front of males and females,” she said, adding jokingly, “I’d prefer the male pat down.”
Nationwide, about 42 million people plan to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday, according to AAA, with just more than 1.6 million flying — a 3.5 percent increase from last year. Orbitz says O’Hare is, by far, the busiest airport in the country this Thanksgiving season, with 20 percent more travelers than the second busiest, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX.)
Additional security staff have been added for the busy travel day, Chicago Department of Aviation spokeswoman Karen Pride said.
But if the protest still takes off at some point in the day, that could change. Body scans for passengers chosen at random take as little as 10 seconds. New pat-down procedures, which involve a security worker touching travelers’ crotch and chest areas, can take 4 minutes or longer.
Further problems could be caused for passengers on Spirit Airlines, which experienced a nationwide computer crash Wednesday morning. Without a reservation system, the airline has had to write out boarding passes by hand and check in passengers manually, according to published reports.
Spirit runs a popular flight to Las Vegas from O’Hare, among others.
Meanwhile, AAA Chicago spokeswoman Beth Mosher called the body scanners “a necessary change and a necessary improvement, but it will be interesting to see what happens and how people take to these.”
But Mosher says many travelers will be avoiding the airport security checkpoints altogether, by opting not to fly at all.
“This holiday marks the largest percentage of people who are driving for any travel holiday ever, and that was before these new TSA rules were put into place,” Mosher said.
Mosher said factors other than security screenings were prompting people to decide not to fly.
“We’re seeing people take to the roads really, we think, because of the increased fees that they’re having to pay, and the high cost of traveling by air,” Mosher said. “We really don’t think that these new screenings and everything that we’ve heard is going to reflect in the numbers with more people traveling by auto.”
CBS 2’s Mike Puccinelli contributed to this report.