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Opt-outs largely no-shows at airports

By the CNN Wire Staff
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TSA chief responds to 'opt out' protest
  • NEW: TSA says travel so normal, some screening lanes were closed
  • Protesters declare success because of national discussion
  • "It's a nonevent," airline spokesman says
  • No major airport delays reported; TSA staff reports "many compliments"

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(CNN) -- The controversy over new security measures at airport checkpoints -- which some feared would boil over Wednesday, one of the year's busiest travel days -- instead didn't even reach a simmer.

Critics had declared the day before Thanksgiving "National Opt-Out Day" and urged travelers selected to undergo full body scans to refuse to subject themselves to the advanced imaging technology.

Anyone who refuses a scan is checked instead by the more time-consuming "enhanced" pat-down procedure. Security lines at busy airports nationwide could be snarled if a large number of people opt for the pat downs, and the Transportation Security Administration said it was as prepared as possible to deal with any resulting delays.

On Wednesday, however, no major problems or delays were reported at airports because of the protest.

A TSA official told CNN on Wednesday that wait times at security lines around the country were normal to below normal. On a normal day, about 99 percent of passengers at security checkpoints choose to go through a scanning machine rather than have a pat down. The same was true Wednesday as millions of travelers made their way through the nation's airports, the TSA said.

"Our preparations for today kept wait times at such a minimum that some airports are closing screening lanes due to a lack of passenger throughput," the TSA said.

Organizers of the protest said their goal was never to delay travelers, but merely to urge them to stay home -- or to begin a dialogue about security procedures.

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"Now we're having this national conversation saying, 'We have limited resources. Are we doing it right? Is there something more we can be doing?' " said Brian Sodergren of "... These are all issues that I wanted to be brought up and have a discussion about, so as far as I'm concerned, [the day has] succeeded. We got the issue out there, and got the attention of folks."

Opt-Out Day was "a nonevent," said Christopher White, a spokesman for AirTran Airways. "... When it comes down to it, people want to get to their destinations as quickly and easily as possible."

A blog maintained by the TSA showed there have been a few opt-outs at airports throughout the day Wednesday. Incidents were reported at airports in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; New Orleans, Louisiana; Los Angeles, California; Charlotte, North Carolina; Cleveland, Ohio; Boston, Massachusetts; and Detroit, Michigan, according to the TSA. As of 6 p.m. Wednesday, the numbers varied from 300 passengers asking not to be scanned in Boston to one in Charlotte.

Security checkpoint waits were generally less than 30 minutes.

"We measured the wait times at one of our checkpoints vs. the coffee shop just inside the terminal past the checkpoint," reported workers at the Burbank, California, airport. "The coffee shop took longer."

"Many, many compliments and few opt-outs," said a report from Boston.

In Burlington, Vermont, one passenger who received a pat down said, "That's it? That's all there is to it? Why is the media making such a big deal? I've received more invasive pat downs just going to a rock concert," according to the TSA blog.

"Every traveler is a critical partner in TSA's efforts to keep our skies safe," TSA Administrator John Pistole said in a statement Wednesday, "and I know and appreciate that the vast majority of Americans recognize and respect the important work we do."

James Babb, co-founder of the website, also declared the day productive, saying quiet airports were "a definite sign of success that people have been heeding our message to avoid flying if at all possible."

"The best choice for people is to avoid airports altogether," Babb told CNN. "That's what we've been telling people -- to avoid the scan and avoid the pat down. That's been our message; that's why our organization is called WeWontFly. We will not fly if it means being abused."

Earlier Wednesday, Babb told CNN the current security efforts are "security theater ... we have to abandon the security theater, and we have to bring in common sense. What they're doing right now is for show."

But Pistole said the advanced scanners, and even the pat downs that are seen as overly intrusive by critics, give security officials the best possible chance to detect a nonmetallic device like the one used by a man charged with attempting to detonate a bomb sewn into his underwear on a Christmas Day 2009 flight.

Pistole urged travelers to work with, not against, the security agency. "The bottom line is, we're all trying to get people home safe for the holidays," he said. "The best way we can do that is in partnership with the traveling public."

The TSA's full body scans and the enhanced pat-down procedures have been the target of growing criticism. Some passengers have shared horror stories of pat downs that seemed too invasive or intimate.

A Michigan man told CNN that he endured what he called an "extremely embarrassing" pat down this month. Thomas Sawyer, a bladder cancer survivor who has worn a urostomy bag since a surgery three years ago, said a TSA agent at Detroit Metropolitan Airport caused the seal of the bag to open partially during a pat down, spilling urine on his clothes.

Pistole said he is sensitive to concerns raised by critics who say the scans and pat downs violate individual privacy, but he said, as he has the past few days, that his agency is attempting to strike a balance between those concerns and travelers' security.

He said he spoke to Sawyer this week and had a "very good conversation." Pistole said that he is taking Sawyer up on his offer to speak to TSA agents and educate them about external medical devices.

While the pat downs may be seen as intrusive, Pistole noted that tests of airport checkpoints have shown that people who should have been stopped have consistently been able to slip through, and a primary reason was the lack of a thorough pat down by agents.

The TSA is working with various agencies to determine whether a modification of procedures to assuage critics would compromise security, Pistole said.

Organizers of the opt-out day said on their website, "The goal of National Opt-Out Day is to send a message to our lawmakers that we demand change. We have a right to privacy and buying a plane ticket should not mean that we're guilty until proven innocent."

Pistole acknowledged Tuesday, "If people decide intentionally to slow down the process, that will have an adverse effect on people getting on their flight on a timely basis."

Asked about the possibility of slowing security lines and delaying people's reunions with family members, Babb, the co-founder, said, "That's not our goal. That's why for weeks we've been telling people to avoid air travel altogether."

"I think it's been a success," Sodergren said. "You know, I think even before today, it's been a success. You've had the TSA step back and say, 'You know, is there a better way we can do these pat downs that aren't so invasive.' ... I think they get it now."

CNN's Wayne Drash, Mike Ahlers, Ashley Hayes and Jeanne Meserve contributed to this report.

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