But those who choose to fly to warmer destinations still face the frustration of possible flight delays because of the weather and the seemingly endless queues as a result of ever-tightening security measures. In some cases, these are becoming increasingly intrusive. At some airports around the world, the authorities have installed whole body scanners which allow security staff to view passengers all but naked. Those who refuse are subjected to a quite intimate body search.
In the US, the backlash has begun. John Tyner is a young man who’s now had his fifteen minutes of fame by introducing a new and rather curious phrase into the English language. He was about to catch a flight from San Diego in California. The airport security team wanted him to go through its scanner but he refused. The guard explained that he would have to go through what he called “a body pat-down”, describing in detail what was involved. Tyner agreed with the exception of the examination by hand of his groin. He told the guard: “If you touch my junk, I’m gonna have you arrested.”
We know this because Tyner recorded the encounter on his camera phone. He put the clips up on YouTube and the video quickly went viral. He also wrote about it detail in a blog which makes fascinating reading. Perhaps understandably, he didn’t get to catch his flight. The airport authorities threatened him with a civil action with a possible fine of $10,000 (£6,200). What they clearly hadn’t bargained on was the level of public support for Tyner’s stand.
Within the week, a campaign was under way for everyone travelling the day before Thanksgiving (November 25th) to boycott body scanners – that’s one of the busiest days for airports in the US. A short time later, the head of the Transport Security Administration, John Pistole, was summoned before a Congressional Committee to defend the use of full body scanners – they were brought in after the attempt by a Nigerian terrorist to blow up an aircraft over Detroit with explosives hidden in his underwear.
He was also probed about the the introduction a few weeks ago of intimate body searches for those who, like Tyner, didn’t want to go through the scanners. Apparently, these include the firm pressing of a security guard’s hand on the genitals and breasts. One Senator, George LeMieux, observed that he “wouldn’t want my wife to be touched in the way that these folks are being touched. I wouldn’t want to be touched that way.”
But Mr Pistole insisted that he would not change the policies. He claimed that most passengers would prefer to fly in a plane where people had been screened. “I think everybody will want to opt for the screening with the assurance that that flight is safe and secure,” he said. But that didn’t satisfy another US legislator, one Ron Paul who’s introduced a Bill to stop what he’s called the “calamity” of airport security.
“If we can’t take nude photos of people, why do we allow the government to do it?” he explained. “We would go to jail. Something has to be done. Everybody’s fed up. The people are fed up. The pilots are fed up. I’m fed up. What we’re putting up with at the airport is so symbolic of us just not standing up and saying enough is enough. I know the American people are starting to wake up but our government, those in charge, Congress, are doing nothing.”
In particular, he’s focused on one aspect of the current policy in the US which insists that pilots and other flight crew also have to go through the body scanner or be intimately searched. “Can you think how silly the whole thing is?,” he asked. “The pilot has a gun in the cockpit (only in the US, ed.) and he’s managing this aircraft which is a missile, and we make him go through this groping, x-ray exercise, having people feel in their underwear. It’s absurd.”
So far, there hasn’t been the same level of objection in Europe as there has in the USA. But it has prompted the Edinburgh-based flight-comparison site Skyscanner to conduct a survey on this issue. It found that many travellers had sympathy with the ‘Don’t Touch My Junk’ campaign. 34% of those polled said they were “embarrassed” by security pat downs while and one in eight went so far as to claim that they “felt violated” – all harsh descriptions for a procedure designed to make the traveller feel “safe”.
But the survey also showed a more confusing picture of people’s attitudes to airport security. 29% of passengers admitted to have slipped items through security checks by accident while a more worrying 14% claimed to have done so on purpose.