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Destination Thanksgiving

At Logan, more opt in than out

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By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / November 25, 2010

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Lines and wait times were unexpectedly short yesterday as holiday travelers in Boston and at airports across the country largely chose to opt out of National Opt-Out Day, an attempt to protest new security measures on one of the busiest travel days of the year.

At Logan International and other major airports, including those in Los Angeles and Atlanta, most people chose to have a body scan rather than a security pat-down. Critics of the more aggressive new airport security measures had urged travelers to opt out of the scans in favor of the more time-consuming pat-down as a way to clog security checkpoints and call attention to their complaints.

Of the 56,000 travelers screened at Logan by 5 p.m. yesterday, , only about 300 chose to get patted down, said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.

“The opt-out movement seems to not have taken hold of very many people, and we’re not really having the issues that were predicted,’’ Davis said.

Yesterday the longest checkpoint wait time at Logan by 5 p.m. hit 12 minutes — not much longer than on a typical weekday — and most passengers in Terminal A appeared to breeze through security in minutes.

The Quinn family, of Malden, arrived at Logan about an hour earlier than they normally would have. Only one family member — 64-year-old Joe Quinn — was directed through a body scanner, one of 17 at Logan. The rest were waved through a traditional metal detector and were quick to laugh at themselves for worrying about a possible delay.

“We’ve got an hour and a half to kill,’’ said Matthew, 23.

“All because of the hype,’’ added his mother, Katherine, 59. “It’s like the snowstorm that never appears.’’

The new security measures are designed to stop terrorists, and while most passengers seem to accept the inconvenience as worthwhile, others object to the small dose of radiation the scanners deliver or to what they see as an invasion of privacy. The scanners reveal, in rough outline, a passenger’s unclothed contour. The alternative, a pat-down, has been expanded to include parts of the body previously unexamined, fueling a separate set of privacy complaints.

At Logan yesterday, Liz Sheldon of Henniker, N.H., said she was more comfortable with a digital scan of her body than a pat-down.

“You want to take a picture of me, go ahead,’’ Sheldon said, adding that she thought it would be less embarrassing than being frisked. “That or someone’s hands all over me? I’ll take the scanner.’’

Yesterday was among the most hectic at Logan, with 107,000 people expected to travel through the airport — about 20,000 more than on a typical Wednesday. While Logan reported few delays, wind snarled some flights in and out of New York’s LaGuardia Airport and New Jersey’s Newark International Airport.

Traffic on the nation’s roadways and rails was also expectedly heavy, but no major incidents were reported regionally. AAA estimated that 42.2 million people nationally would travel at least 50 miles from home around the holiday weekend, an 11.4 percent increase from last year.

The motor club also projected that 94 percent of those travelers would go by car, the highest percentage predicted in two decades. And Amtrak projected 127,000 passengers yesterday nationwide, about a 70 percent increase over a normal Wednesday.

To prepare for the Thanksgiving weekend, Thomas Kinton, Massachusetts Port Authority chief executive, said Logan stationed more State Police at security checkpoints. But during a morning walk-through of the airport with Kinton yesterday, Edward Freni, Massport director of aviation, noted that as of 8:30 a.m., it appeared “less people are opting out than on a normal day.’’

“It was more hype than anything,’’ Kinton said.

Most of those who did opt out said they elected a pat-down because they were concerned about possible health risks the machines pose, even though the TSA has said the scanner’s radiation level is equal to what a person is exposed to during two minutes of an airplane flight.

Matt Carroll, 22, of Connecticut, chose a pat-down at Logan yesterday and said he will continue to do so, at least until he is convinced the machines are safe.

“I just heard it wasn’t necessarily safe with the radiation levels,’’ he said. “I heard a lot of people were opting out.’’

Maria Campbell, an art institute student traveling home to Ohio, said she routinely chooses a pat-down instead of going through the scanner, but did so yesterday at Logan as a show of support for Opt-Out Day.

“I don’t want to be digitally strip-searched,’’ she said of the new machines, adding that she did this “for my friends who would find this traumatic.’’

The man who launched the protest campaign, Brian Sodergren, did not return calls from the Globe yesterday.

Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, espionage, and intelligence studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., who was monitoring Opt-Out Day, said a majority of people seemed to recognize the need for more aggressive security measures — as well as the desire to be home for the holidays quickly.

“There are certainly plenty of people who just want to get where they’re going for Thanksgiving,’’ he said.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, which disagrees with the government’s use of full-body scanners to screen travelers, maintained its support for yesterday’s Opt-Out campaign, no matter how many people participated.

“Right now these machines are not effective at detecting powdered explosives, and the American public is trading their privacy for the illusion of security,’’ said Ginger McCall, assistant director of the center’s Open Government Project.

Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts vowed to examine how a better balance can be struck between keeping the skies safe and protecting people’s privacy.

“I refuse to accept the notion that we can’t keep people safe without undermining our civil liberties,’’ he said in a statement. “It’s not an either/or choice.’’

The few staged protests around the country appeared to be more colorful than disruptive. One man paraded around a terminal in the Salt Lake City airport wearing only a swimsuit, boots, and a cap. Two people at the Phoenix airport held signs decrying “porno-scans’’ and drew sidelong glances from some passengers but words of support from others.

The protesters, husband and wife Patricia Stone and John Richards of Chandler, Ariz., said the TSA has taken security too far.

“Just because you buy a plane ticket doesn’t mean you have to subject yourself to awful security measures,’’ said Stone, 44. “It’s not a waiver of your rights. The TSA is security theater. They’re not protecting us.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at eailworth@globe.com. Eric Moskowitz and Katie Johnston Chase of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Globe wires were also used in the compilation of this report.