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Tighter security, higher gas prices won’t keep Americans home

Tom Fontaine

Increased security at airports and soaring gas prices aren’t expected to keep Americans from traveling for Thanksgiving.

A planned protest over the increased airport security measures, however, could slow them down.

More than 42 million Americans are expected to travel at least 50 miles Wednesday through Sunday, an 11.4 percent increase over last year, according to AAA. That includes almost 1.2 million Pennsylvanians, up from just more than 1 million a year ago.

Pennsylvania Turnpike officials predict 2.7 million vehicles will use the turnpike, a 29 percent jump over last year, and the Air Transport Association is forecasting a 3.5 percent increase in passengers.

“Many Americans are in a better financial position than they were last year,” said Jim Lehman, executive vice president of the East Liberty-based AAA East Central.

Some airline passengers don’t like the position they’re in at airport checkpoints — forced to choose between full-body scanners that emit radiation and produce graphic images or pat-down searches that are more hands-on. Screeners recently started using fingers and palms to probe for banned items instead of brushing the backs of their hands past sensitive body parts.

Debate over the measures reached a fever pitch last week with a California man’s refusal to go through a body scanner or be patted down in San Diego. The Transportation Security Administration threatened fines, citing a court ruling indicating passengers can’t refuse screening once in a checkpoint area. He hadn’t been fined as of Sunday.

At least one group is organizing a protest Wednesday, which it is dubbing National Opt-Out Day. Organizers are urging passengers to refuse to go through the body scanners and force TSA screeners to conduct more time-consuming pat-down searches instead.

Currently, less than 1 percent of passengers refuse to go through body scanners, said TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis.

“There is no intent or desire to delay passengers en route to friends and family over Thanksgiving,” said a statement on the website optoutday.org.

Pittsburgh International Airport spokeswoman JoAnn Jenny advised travelers to arrive at the airport at least two hours before their scheduled departure, citing the increased traffic and security measures and potential protest.

“Why they would want to create more stress at the holidays is beyond me,” Jenny said of the would-be protesters.

Davis said TSA is aware of the protest movement but declined to speculate on its potential impact “because this has never happened before.”

TSA responded to some complaints. The agency said last week pilots would no longer be forced to undergo physical screening at checkpoints, in response to their complaints about the scanners and pat-downs; and pat-down procedures for children younger than 12 were modified, although it did not specify the changes.

This year’s projected increase in travel follows last year’s slight year-to-year gain of 0.2 percent and a monumental 25 percent decline in 2008, AAA said. This year’s total would fall well below the record of 58.6 million travelers in 2005.

In addition to increased travelers, airfares are expected to be up 4 percent and hotel rates up 6 percent from last year.

Increased prices at the pump will affect the most people, with almost 95 percent of people expected to travel by car. On Friday, Pennsylvania gas prices averaged $2.99 a gallon, up 29 cents a gallon over last

Thanksgiving and 13 cents a gallon from two weeks ago, according to the Oil Price Information Service.

“Thanksgiving tends to be a holiday where people don’t let the price of gas dissuade them from traveling. Going away for a holiday like Labor Day or Memorial Day seems more discretionary than spending time with family on Thanksgiving. Your mom isn’t going to buy (the argument) that gas prices are too high,” DeFebo said.

Wednesday is expected to have the turnpike’s highest volume of traffic, at 690,000 vehicles, but congestion could be worse Sunday because most of the anticipated 540,000 vehicles will be on the road between 2 and 8 p.m. instead of scattered throughout the day, DeFebo said.


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