Why the Airline Opt-Out Protest Failed

Complaints about airport security recently triggered calls for a consumer-led "Opt-Out" day (boycotting full-body scans) that would hopelessly snarl travel plans and force the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to rethink its intrusive methods. Airline and government officials worried that there would be nationwide travel disruptions today.

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, "Despite threats of protests from passengers angry at new security rules, it was relatively smooth sailing — and flying — at O'Hare Airport Wednesday. Lines at ticket counters and at security checkpoints were moving freely throughout the morning and early afternoon. 'There are no delays, no lines, no protests that I know of,' said Karen Pride, spokeswoman for the Chicago department of aviation."

In fact, reports so far have indicated no significant delays, protests, or slow-downs at any major airports, from Los Angeles to New York — beyond, of course, being the busiest travel day of the year. So what happened to the thousands (or tens of thousands) of angry airline customers who weren't going to take it anymore? [Ticked-Off Travelers: Why We Hate the New TSA Screenings]

Why did the Opt-Out protest fizzle?            

For one thing, public anger over the body scans was largely confined to a vocal minority. It's easy to create and organize a spontaneous movement or protest via the Internet. All it takes are a few clicks of a mouse and some Facebook promotion to spread an idea across the globe. But when it comes down to actually protesting apathy often overcomes outrage.

Second, it seems that passengers realized that protesting would mainly hurt themselves. The TSA agents are concerned with security, not making sure that airline passengers make it to their departure gates on time. If passengers choose to spend longer in security than they need to, that's their choice.

Another factor in the Opt-Out protest's failure is that when you do the math you realize that the number of people who would protest was very small — perhaps too small to make any difference anyway. Essentially, the pool of potential protesters was chosen weeks or months ago — mostly people who were going to visit family for Thanksgiving. While of course some of them might be agitated enough to participate in the Opt-Out protest, the vast majority of them don't want to spend any more time in security than they need to.

The protest was also organized on very short notice. If it had been planned weeks or months in advance, that would have given time for people to purchase tickets specifically for the protest. Yet few of those who felt strongly enough to actually protest were willing to purchase an airline ticket at more or less the last minute (often at high prices) just to be able to travel on Nov. 24 and have the opportunity to show their defiance.

Furthermore, only a small minority of passengers is asked to go though the body scanner. It is not routine, nor required for all airline passengers. In fact it’s likely that many of the people who might have planned on opting out in protest never even had the chance to do so, since they weren't among those asked to undergo those body scans in the first place.

If the threat was intended to make the Transportation Security Administration back down, it failed. The TSA did not discontinue any procedures in response to the threatened protest, though it reiterated its long-standing position that policies would be continually re-evaluated.

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of six books. His website is www.RadfordBooks.com.

Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.