Travel-trained: Americans take security with sigh
The snow globes might contain explosive nitroglycerin, an officer informed the 16-year-old from Houston. Instead of complaining, Burford did what thousands of other travelers are doing when confronted with pat-downs, body scanners and the other indignities of air travel this holiday season.
She bit her tongue and obeyed.
"I think we're actually getting used to the fact that we have to go through so much to go places," Burford said.
As the Christmas travel week arrives, it appears Americans are getting used to flying under the specter of terrorism and the new inconveniences the government deems necessary to combat it. Most people surrender to body scans and invasive pat-downs with little fuss. Resignation has replaced fear.
Even when the Newark, N.J. airport, one of the country's biggest, closed a terminal containing a "suspicious package" on Monday, most travelers shrugged off the two-hour disruption.
Holiday air travel is up 2.8 percent this year, says the AAA motorists' club, which surveys Americans about their travel plans. That's about the same as the increase in the number of people who are driving, which suggests that U.S. travelers are undeterred by airport security measures introduced after a Nigerian was arrested on charges of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day 2009 with explosives hidden in his underwear.
The Transportation Security Administration has installed 483 full-body image scanners at 78 airports, and plans to have 1,000 in place by the end of 2011. In late October, the agency announced a new, more invasive pat-down procedure in which inspectors touch the inside of passengers' legs, the groin area and along the buttocks.
Outrage over the screenings grew in November. Hundreds of thousands of people viewed a cell-phone video in which a California man resisted a scan and groin check at the San Diego airport with the words, "If you touch my junk, I'll have you arrested."
Some travelers tried to organize a boycott of the body scanners ahead of Thanksgiving, but the movement fizzled, said Airports Council International-North America, which represents airport managers. There were no signs of a revolt this time, either, the organization said.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll last month found that 64 percent of Americans support the use of body scanners. The random telephone poll of 514 people had a margin of error of 5 percentage points.
Lucas Wiseman got the pat-down treatment for the first time this week in Dallas and said it was "a little over the top, a little invasive."
"It felt more like a rubdown than a pat-down, to be honest," the 32-year-old said. He said he understands the need for security — but that next time he'll ask for the frisking to be done in a private room instead of in front of other passengers.
Others are less bothered by the measures.
"If it means me getting naked, I'll get naked and get right on the plane," said Gil Torres, 49, as he waited at Chicago's O'Hare International for a flight to the Philippines.
Shama Chopra, a Montreal woman who was on the Christmas flight with the Nigerian suspect, is now so concerned about safety that she and her husband, Raman Chopra, avoid flying together. They take separate flights to keep their children from turning into "instant orphans" if something happened, Raman Chopra said.
Aside from the screening measures, the TSA says it is using bomb-sniffing dogs, explosive detectors and "behavior detection officers" trained in spotting suspicious travelers. The agency's Secure Flight Program compares passenger manifests with government databases to spot possible attackers before they even arrive at the airport.
The complications have deterred at least some of the 92.3 million people traveling over the holidays from taking a plane. Mike Higgins of Oklahoma City said long security lines and air travel delays are part of the reason he and his wife are driving 1,100 miles to Las Vegas for Christmas.
"It's less hassle," said Higgins. "I'd rather have the freedom of driving."
But those who have switched from air to car travel because of security are in the minority, AAA spokeswoman Nancy White said. There has been no "significant hike" in motorists because of airport security or fears of a terrorist attack, she said.
Chris Soulia, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1234, a union that represents 1,800 TSA agents in several Western states, said officers are seeing more cooperation from passengers in recent months.
"The passengers are getting used to the new screening procedures, probably because we've had so much coverage in the press," he said. He added that people haven't made a fuss about the imaging machines.
"A lot of people who come through, their standard response is, 'That's it? That's what all the fuss is about?'" he said.
One hiccup Soulia noted: Wrapped presents. Agents must unwrap them if they have to screen a bag.
Once on board, air travelers appear to be behaving themselves.
Many passengers said they have learned to get to the airport earlier to deal with security delays. Cynthia Jordan, 24, flies about twice each year from Columbia, S.C., to Detroit and typically arrives at airports two hours before her flight takes off.
"No problems. It bothers me that you have to take off so much stuff," she said. "But it's a safe way to keep everything in good hands."
There are still plenty of eye-rolling moments, however.
After relinquishing her two $6.95 snow globes, Burford discovered that the same snow globes were on sale at a gift shop beyond the security checkpoint. She replaced them — at a cost of $11.95 each.
The TSA says snow globes have been on its list of banned items for years because of the difficulty of determining how much liquid is inside them.
At London's Stansted Airport, John Fitzgerald and his wife were delayed a half-hour after security inspectors told them the plastic sandwich bag they had brought to carry their toiletries was not acceptable because it did not have a zippered closure. They had to go to a store to buy another bag.
"There's these things you have to do, and you're not quite sure what their importance is or why they're asking you to do it in this particular way," Fitzgerald said. The TSA and foreign security agencies say they require the zippered bags for consistency's sake, and for easily verifying the quantity of items.
Robert Nisely, 60, said he always gets a pat-down because he has a pacemaker, but the friskings have gotten more thorough in the last year. On Tuesday, he was waiting for a flight to Buffalo at New York's LaGuardia Airport.
"I feel marginally safer because of the new procedures, but what people often forget is the next terrorist attack may not even involve airports or airplanes," he said. "Somebody could strap a bomb on his back and go into Grand Central Station or Penn Station. So it's like you're always fighting the last war."
In Newark, N.J., authorities closed a terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport for two hours on Monday after radiation was detected coming out of a computer terminal checked as baggage. Authorities later determined the radiation was normal.
Erika Holland, who flew in from Nashville to Los Angeles on Monday to spend the holidays with friends, said she didn't have to undergo extra screening measures such as the body scanning machines or the enhanced pat-downs, but said she wouldn't be against the invasive checks.
"I'm willing to give up a lot as long as I can fly safely," Holland said.
Associated Press writers contributing to this report were: Tamara Lush in St. Petersburg, Fla., Edward White and Corey Williams in Detroit, Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., Daisy Nguyen in Los Angeles, Errin Haines in Atlanta, Brett Zongker in Arlington, Va.; Ted Shaffrey and David Porter in Newark, N.J.; Kristen Wyatt in Denver; Alicia Caldwell in Washington and Robert Ray in Chicago.
Last updated: 3:46 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012