Will Turkey Day Fliers Cry Foul?

Daily News Article   —   Posted on November 19, 2010

(by Scott McCartney, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) – Airlines will have extra staff, spare airplanes and plentiful plastic bags for shipping car seats. Airports will have executives working as greeters, gifts in Los Angeles for restless kids in long lines, and people with big yellow clipboards in Boston acting as roving information booths.

Yet even with most elaborate preparations for the crowded Thanksgiving travel rush, which starts this weekend, the lowdown is that the pat-downs could sour some family feasts.  An estimated 24 million people will fly over … this Thanksgiving holiday, according to the Air Transport Association. That’s up 3.5% over last year.

While bad weather is usually the biggest threat to holiday travel, there’s a bigger concern this year: new Transportation Security Administration procedures, including full-body scans and aggressive pat-downs that have screeners feeling inside waistbands and touching [private areas].

The body scanners-385 of them now deployed at 68 airports-have raised privacy and radiation-exposure concerns. And the pat-downs, which started Nov. 1, have drawn fire from travel groups, lawmakers, civil-rights advocates, and pilot and flight-attendant unions.

The fear is that Thanksgiving travelers-many of them students, families and older people who fly once or twice a year-will be unfamiliar with TSA procedures and slow to get through checkpoints. Full-body scanners require removal of wallets, belts, jewelry and everything inside pockets.

“With people getting partially molested at checkpoints, all that is going to be a real shock for them,” said Greg Wells, senior vice president of operations at Southwest Airlines. “TSA will create an issue for us. It’s going to slow things down.”

Southwest will have employees with walkie-talkies at checkpoints to hold airplane departures if passengers are stuck in long lines.

Previously, TSA screeners just did a cursory check with the back of their hand, avoiding sensitive areas. Now, anyone who sets off a metal detector, refuses to go through a full-body scan, or has anything on his or her body that the scanner picks up will get the new, more-thorough pat-down procedure.

The changes close gaps identified both by would-be terrorists and by government investigators who covertly try to smuggle weapons through to test the effectiveness of screening, said TSA Administrator John Pistole.

“If you have two planes, one where people are thoroughly and properly screened and the other where people could opt out of screening, which would you want to be on?” he asked.

American Airlines and Southwest both say the Tuesday before Thanksgiving is now busier than Wednesday. The busiest day of the whole holiday remains the Sunday following Thanksgiving, but Monday is hectic, too.

To help relieve congestion and reduce delays, the Federal Aviation Administration said it is opening up some restricted military air space a day earlier this year. Starting at 6 a.m. eastern time Tuesday, commercial airlines will have several additional corridors for flights off the East Coast, plus additional routes across the Gulf of Mexico, into and out of Southern California and across New Mexico. The program ends at 6 a.m. eastern time Nov. 29.

Southwest, the largest domestic carrier in terms of passengers, says it will have extra baggage handlers on duty because it expects an avalanche of luggage since it is the only U.S. airline that lets passengers check two bags without paying additional fees.

Workers who stack suitcases inside airplanes while on their knees get tired quickly and will need more-frequent breaks, and the Thanksgiving rush means extra hands will be needed in baggage-sorting rooms to avoid jams, said Southwest’s Mr. Wells. “It’s all hands on deck,” he said.

Even the airline’s strategy for cancellations is different. “We won’t be canceling anything. We’ll just run late to get everyone where they want to go,” Mr. Wells said.

United Airlines and others schedule workers differently during the holidays because the clientele is different. People who don’t travel often tend to show up at the airport sooner, so more workers may be needed at check-in counters earlier, said Scott Dolan, senior vice president of airport operations.

In Los Angeles, 150 airport employees, from custodians to senior management, will wear red vests and work the departures level for the third year. They direct travelers to check-in or security lines, answer questions like how long it will take to get through lines and try to relieve anxiety, even giving away coloring books and squishy airplane toys to kids and hand-sanitizer wipes, puzzle books and luggage tags to adults.

“It’s all intended to relieve the pain and anxiety of travel,” said Barbara Yamamoto, customer service director at Los Angeles International Airport and head of the Thanksgiving effort.

Boston’s Logan Airport has a similar program called “BOS Team,” with administrative staff working as greeters and line managers who pull people to the front when their flights are soon to depart. They carry yellow clipboards with a big question mark on them to make them easy to spot.

“They look for the lost face,” said Brad Martin, deputy director of aviation who runs Logan’s effort at Thanksgiving.

Write to Scott McCartney at middleseat@wsj.com.

NOTE: This article was first published November 18, 2010 on wsj.com.

Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.  Reprinted here for educational purposes only.  Visit the website at wsj.com