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Turbulence over airport security

As holiday travel builds, Logan passengers divided on full-body scans and pat-downs

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By Erin Ailworth and Katie Johnston Chase
Globe Staff / November 23, 2010

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The busy holiday travel season begins this week at Logan International Airport amid heightened attention to complaints over new airport security measures, which include full-body scans that some consider too revealing and more aggressive pat-downs.

“It seems to me the TSA has turned into the threat,’’ said Emery Woodall, 51, from Atlanta, who opted to get the pat-down — what he calls the “lesser of two evils’’ — instead of going through the body scanner at Logan yesterday afternoon. The pat-downs now extend to the groin area, a level of invasive frisking that has sparked passenger complaints.

“Either you’re going to get virtually molested or physically,’’ he said.

The security measures are designed to reduce the risk of a terrorist threat. Logan — which currently has 17 full-body scanners, at least one at every major security checkpoint — was the first airport to be a part of this year’s nationwide rollout of full-body scanning machines. The expansion followed an attempt by a man to bring down a Detroit-bound plane last Christmas with explosives hidden in his underwear.

Most US travelers accept the new full-body scanners as a way to enhance security, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released yesterday. Two-thirds of those surveyed said they backed the scanners.

But the personal frisking adminis tered to people who refuse the body scan proved more objectionable. The poll found that half the people surveyed said the pat-down searches go too far.

Both views were evident among passengers at Logan yesterday. Some, like Woodall, objected. But others were more accepting.

Martha’s Vineyard couple Patricia Cliggott and Eric Carlson, both 51, both asked to be patted down — rather than have a scan — before catching a flight to West Palm Beach, Fla. Both said it wasn’t as bad as they expected. “It wasn’t as invasive as I saw on television,’’ Cliggott said.

The Transportation Security Administration said yesterday that it is taking public concern over privacy invasions into consideration. For instance, it is in the process of working with companies to develop new software that shows a generic stick figure instead of an actual image of a passenger’s body as it scans for weapons and explosives.

“We welcome feedback and comments on the screening procedures from the traveling public, and we will work to make them as minimally invasive as possible,’’ TSA administrator John Pistole said in a statement. “As we have said from the beginning, we are seeking to strike the right balance between privacy and security.’’

By the end of the year, 450 full-body scanners are expected to be in airports across the country, with 500 more next year.

Since the machines have been in place, passengers across the country have lodged complaints about the radiation the full-body scanners emit. Others worry about what happens to the images of their bodies.

According to the TSA, the amount of radiation a person going through the scanner is exposed to is equal to what a passenger receives during two minutes of airline flight. Additionally, the TSA says the scanners’ ability to store images is used for testing purposes only and is disabled before they are installed in airports.

The TSA doesn’t have statistics on how many people go through the body scanners, but it said only 1 percent of passengers have opted for a pat-down instead of going through the full-body scanner.

Opposition to the scanners and the more aggressive pat-downs has spread via an Internet campaign, and a call for National Opt-Out Day. Passengers traveling tomorrow who object to the new full-body scanners are being encouraged to show their opposition to the scanners by opting instead to get a more time consuming pat-down. This could snarl security lines — and increase wait times — during one of the heaviest travel days of the year.

Logan alone is expecting more than 107,000 passengers tomorrow — about 20,000 more than on a typical Wednesday — and about 770,000 for the eight-day period through Monday.

Brian Sodergren, the Virginia man who started the National Opt-Out Day website, www.optoutday.com, said he hopes the event will put pressure on lawmakers to revise security procedures.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security over the use of full-body scanners, supports the Opt-Out campaign.

“There are valid religious objections, privacy objections, health and safety risks, and a real question about the effectiveness of the machine,’’ said Ginger McCall, assistant director of the center’s Open Government Project, adding that the body scanners were designed to detect high-density objects, not powdered explosives like the kind used in the Christmas Day attempt. “Don’t be satisfied with the false dichotomy that you can either choose privacy or you can choose security. Demand both.’’

Ed Wiebe, 49, a frequent traveler from Canada who opted for the pat-down at Logan yesterday because he is concerned about radiation levels, also back National Opt-Out. Wiebe said he doesn’t necessarily mind the more intimate frisking, but he questioned whether it was necessary. “The government goes from one extreme to the next. They don’t use common sense,’’ he said after going through security at Logan yesterday afternoon. “They let little things slide through and then overreact.’’

Karen Solovei and Alan Ginsberg of Cape Cod aren’t thrilled about the radiation levels from the full-body scanner or the invasion of privacy from the enhanced pat-down. But the couple, at Logan yesterday afternoon on their way to West Palm Beach, agreed that tomorrow’s security protest is a bad idea.

“They’re cutting their nose to spite their face,’’ said Ginsberg, 64. “They’re messing up other travelers.’’

Meanwhile, Hai Hang, a vice president with the American Federation of Government Employees union Local 2617, which represents TSA employees in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, said he hasn’t heard any complaints from airport security workers about the pat-down procedure. “Most of us understand what we have to do to keep the public safe,’’ Hang said.

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com; Katie Johnston Chase can be reached at johnstonchase@globe.com.