Americans Brace for Thanksgiving Flights -- and Pat Downs

TSA full-body scanner at JKF airport
TSA full-body scanner at JKF airport

The growing controversy over intrusive U.S. airport security measures is more than just the punchline to an off-color joke. It comes on the eve of one of the busiest travel seasons in the U.S.: the Thanksgiving holiday. It's also raising questions in the travel industry about whether the invasive procedures could prompt some would-be passengers to swear off flying.

"People are nervous. They imagine naked pictures of themselves on the Internet," says Blake Fleetwood, owner of New York-based Cook Travel. Fleetwood says about 10% to 20% of his customers have been expressing concerns over the new full-body security scanners and thorough pat-downs for passengers who decline to be scanned.

"I have some people who are saying they're not flying until the TSA figures this out," Fleetwood says. "It's a real thing, real fears. They're very, very uneasy. Uneasy to the point that they may not fly. If even 2% don't fly, that's a big deal -- for the airlines and for us."

Last-Minute Rush

Airline passengers have had it rough in recent years as the carriers weather dramatic changes in the industry's landscape. The economic downturn and higher fuel prices have forced some airlines out of existence or into mergers with competitors. The survivors, meanwhile, are scaling back flights, reducing capacity and raising fares. Add into that mix recent security threats, including the attempt by the so-called underwear bomber last December, and it's no wonder some people now dread air travel.

That ambivalence, along with many consumers' continuing financial worries, seems to be causing a spike in last-minute bookings this year as Thanksgiving approaches. "People are buying within seven days, within two days of departure," says Julie Barsamian, Cook Travel's marketing director, "because there are deals out there that are relatively sensible for our customers. Many domestic carriers also have one-day sales."

Ironically, a reviving economy may also contribute to a tough flight home for Thanksgiving. "There was a lot of anticipation [by the airlines] there wouldn't be as much travel now," says Mac Clouse, professor of finance at the University of Denver's Daniels College of Business. "It's not clear the airlines have the capacity to add additional flights to meet some of that demand. They've done a lot of cuts in [personnel] as well. I just had an experience where a flight was two hours late leaving, because we didn't have a co-pilot."

More Americans Are Driving

Those taking to the road (one way to avoid a full-body scan or pat down) will have plenty of company. AAA is expecting about 42.2 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles away from home during the Thanksgiving holiday. That's an increase of more than 11% from last year. "This is really the highest percentage of people traveling by automobile that we've seen for any holiday in the data we have available," says Yolanda Cade, the organization's managing director of public relations.

She believes a combination of factors explain why more Americans are driving, including the new air regulations. But when you look at the overall number of people expected to travel this Thanksgiving, she notes, about 4% are flying. "That's only about 1.6 million people traveling by plane," she says.

AAA says its forecast for a double-digit increase in Thanksgiving travel "would signify an important upturn in travel volume for the holiday after a year of negligible growth in 2009 (0.2 %) and two years after a historic 25.2% decline in travel in 2008." But it adds that this year's expected total number of holiday travelers will remain about 30% below the prerecession figures for the 2005 holiday.

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Not to miss out on the booming demand for getting around the country, Amtrak says it's putting into service every available passenger rail car it has for the holiday, and it's scheduling extra trains along its Northeast, Midwest and West Coast routes. The railroad expects about 127,000 passengers systemwide on Thanksgiving Eve -- its heaviest single travel day of the year.

The government, meanwhile, acknowledges that the new air-security procedures are, at best, problematic -- and is asking for the traveling public's patience. TSA Administrator John Pistole recently told a Senate committee that his organization routinely evaluates, updates and upgrades its training procedures to meet emerging threats. "To defeat our enemies," Pistole testified, "we have to do our job better and smarter, and reshape our security approach so everyone recognizes what it is: one part of a continuum that comprises the national security mission of the United States."

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