Newark airport controversial scanners are barely used on busiest travel day

New Jersey On-Line | November 25, 2010

NEWARK — The choice between a "virtual strip search" and a "grope" was strictly academic Wednesday for most holiday travelers flying out of Newark Liberty International Airport.

The majority of Newark’s full-body scanners were idle throughout much of the day, depriving most passengers of the chance to opt out of the controversial screening procedure even if they had wanted to.

All in all, Thanksgiving eve was a non-event at Newark Liberty, reflecting the relative calm reported at airports around the country.

"Things have gone very, very smoothly," said Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration. "Wait times have been kept to a minimum, and we’ve been very pleased to hear quite a few compliments and thank yous coming from passengers."

Davis could not say just how many passengers opted out of being scanned in Newark, though she said it was very few.

"I don’t have numbers," Davis said, "just an overall sense that passengers seem to be opting out of Opt Out."

The scanners produce detailed digital images of passengers’ bodies, and have been derided by civil libertarians as "visual strip searches." The TSA’s new, more aggressive pat-downs have been characterized as government-sponsored gropes, even "sexual assault," following complaints that screeners had touched male and female passengers’ genitals.

Early this month a web site,, urged passengers to opt out the scanning in protest, prompting concern that widespread participation in the so-called National Opt Out Day would cause delays at security checkpoints, because passengers opting out would have to submit to a lengthier screening process involving a metal detector and a pat-down.

The opt-out campaign was criticized by TSA Administrator John Pistole as "irresponsible," and this week he urged fliers not to participate, though it hardly seemed necessary. Polls say a majority of the general public support the scanners, and interviews with dozens of fliers in recent weeks suggests nearly unanimous support among those actually taking to the skies.

"If it’s in the interest of safety, it’s alright," Bob Wallace, a 40-year-old recruiter from Weehawken, said Wednesday, before a flight to Florida with his wife, Reveka, for Thanksgiving.

The Wallaces were headed into Checkpoint B-1 in Newark’s Terminal B, where a TSA spokeswoman said at least one of the checkpoint’s two scanners was in use at the time, though the scanners there are not visible from the unsecured area of the terminal. Nearly continuous monitoring of checkpoints B-2 and B-3 suggested the scanners at those two locations were not in use from early morning through mid-afternoon.

Throughout the day, lines at the checkpoints in all three terminals seemed to flow smoothly. If there were pat-downs, whether conducted randomly or due to opt-outs or other reasons, they were few and inconspicuous. An unusual abundance of the TSA’s blue-shirted screeners seemed to circulate throughout Newark’s terminals Wednesday.

Still, some passengers had mixed feelings about the new screening procedures.

"I have concerns," said Ifeoma Anekwe, lawyer from Jersey City. "Who’s looking at my image? Will it go on the Internet or will they delete my image?"

"I’ll go through the pat-down," Anekwe said. Even so, she added, "I don’t want my breast groped by a strange woman."