If you’re reading this, you’re probably not home for Christmas

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Christopher Elliott

No, you’re stuck at the airport or in a motel, waiting for the winter storm to pass.

The National Weather Service has issued a warning for heavy snow in the mountain counties of North Carolina not bordering Tennessee, the mountains of South Carolina and Georgia, and the North Carolina foothills. Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are under a winter storm watch. Airlines are proactively canceling flights and waiving cancellation penalties.

Western Europe, which has been battered by winter storms, has it even worse. About 200 people spent the night at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, which cancelled 400 flights because of snow and ice.

I spent a good part of yesterday fielding calls from reporters who wanted to know what to do if winter weather disrupts your holiday travel plans. Unfortunately, by “travel” they meant “air travel” — and that’s not how must of us are getting home. More than 90 percent of us are driving or taking the train. Or trying.

Do I have any advice for stranded travelers?

No, not really, other than to sit tight, pull out a good book or click on your favorite travel blog, and wait for the weather to pass. Airlines consider blizzards to be an “Act of God” and they aren’t required to do anything under their onerous contracts of carriage. As for motorists, when’s the last time you negotiated a meal voucher from a car that’s stuck in a snow drift?

I do, however, have some interesting holiday reading.

Scanners and lobbyists. The Washington Post published a fascination story yesterday on how influential lobbyists have sweet-talked the government into making misguided investments in whole-body imaging technology. Many scanner companies are also on pace to spend record amounts of money for lobbying this year — $6 million, records show — to rebuff potential problems as some lawmakers push for limits on airport-security practices.

The House, it reports, “stunned the industry” last year by overwhelmingly approving a bill by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) prohibiting the TSA from using body scanners as primary passenger-screening tools at airports.

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The vote prompted a frantic scramble by scanner lobbyists to halt the measure in the Senate, according to legislative aides and others familiar with the battle. The effort was bolstered by the failed “underwear bomber” plot last December, which hastened calls for increased scanner use.

Where’s the rest of big media on this story? Apart from a Department of the Obvious “expose” in AOL, which pretty much confirmed the scanners are unsafe, they’ve been asleep at the wheel.

Hello! Anyone home?

Removing shoes is worse that scanning? No one ever accused the mainstream media of brilliant coverage of the TSA scanning issue, but this may represent a new low. CNN reported earlier this week that body scans (and presumably, the threat of a pat-down) aren’t the worst part of airport security. What is? Removing your shoes. Nearly 40 percent of travelers say it’s the the most dissatisfying aspect of their flying experience, according to a survey conducted for the U.S. Travel Association, a nonprofit organization lobbying for a trusted-traveler program.

What nonsense. Only 3 percent of air travelers are scanned, according to the TSA, so of the 1,000 people surveyed by U.S. Travel, only a fraction would have likely known that the scans or mandatory pat-downs were worse — which they certainly are. I can’t believe U.S. Travel didn’t clarify that when the reporter called. Too much eggnog at the holiday party, fellas?

Still-anonymous pilot says he’s made air travel “safer.” Anyone who believes the stereotype that all airline pilots are arrogant probably shouldn’t follow the coverage of the whistleblowing Sacramento pilot who videotaped the the security flaws at San Francisco Airport. He’s still anonymous, which I find troubling. And from behind the protective veil of anonymity, he’s made a remarkable claim: that’s his YouTube videos (which have since been deleted) have actually improved airport security. “This might actually stop something that might otherwise have happened this Christmas,” he told a Sacramento TV station.

Who in their right mind would believe the federal government can move that fast? Mr. Anonymous now wants to go to Washington to share his “insights” on security with Congress. Oh, I’ve seen all of this before, and it doesn’t end well. The pilot should just shut up and let his video do the talking.

Kudos to News 10, the Sacramento station that broke this story. They followed up today with a report that says passengers are outraged by the holes in security. But we already knew that.

So that’s all for now. Have a great holiday, and if you’re not home, here’s hoping the weather clears!

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is the founder of Elliott Advocacy, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that empowers consumers to solve their problems and helps those who can't. He's the author of numerous books on consumer advocacy and writes three nationally syndicated columns. He also publishes the Elliott Report, a news site for consumers, and Elliott Confidential, a critically acclaimed newsletter about customer service. If you have a consumer problem you can't solve, contact him directly through his advocacy website. You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or sign up for his daily newsletter. He is based in Tokyo.

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