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Post-December 25 air travel

Stuff is flying (and I don’t mean airplanes) since the foiled bomb attack by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Northwest Airlines flight 253, specifically on how the government and airlines are reacting.

The Transportation Security Administration under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security umbrella issued Security Directive SD 1544-09-06, which it sent to all airlines and airports on the same day as the incident. In it, the TSA outlined what was not allowed in air travel. The directive, which was to be in order through December 30, required that flight crew could not make any announcements regarding the position of the aircraft. And beginning at an hour before landing, passengers were required to remain in their seats beginning, could not access their carry-ons, nor have any blankets, pillows, or personal belongings on their lap. And worst of all for many electronically savvy travelers, the directive banned the use of all “aircraft-integrated passenger communications systems and services” during all phases of the flight (such as phones, Internet, GPS, etc).

Travel writers Christopher Elliott and Steve Frischling were sent copies of the directive from industry sources, and representatives from the TSA came down with a hammer in the form of a subpoena to find out who their sources were. Fortunately for both of them, calmer heads prevailed, and the subpoenas were withdrawn after a few days (I’m sure in no small part to the people who came to their support). Talk about a terrible way to spend one’s holidays.

Security policies by the airlines however, seem not to have calmed down yet. I have heard a number of reports via email and on various online posts that airlines are imposing new policies that make you scratch your head.

I have read some accounts of airlines only allowing travelers to take on a small personal item, requiring them to check in their larger carry-on bag. If I were to travel with just my carry-on bag, and it’s not at maximum size, I don’t know what they would do.

Most recently, Nate Silver of the FiveThirtyEight.com political statistics Web site tweeted that on his flight today from Montreal to JFK (New York City), Delta Airlines prohibited all carry-on—and oh-by-the-way, you have to pay $20 to check in your carry-on! Because you know, it’s now a check-in bag.

Silver amended his original tweet to say that :

Correction: you’re allowed to bring on a carry-on bag if it contains a computer but **not if it doesn’t**. Wish I were making this up.

The only reason for this that I can think of is that Delta doesn’t want the added responsibility for being liable for people’s laptops, since people typically don’t (or lack the ability to) lock their carry-ons. If Delta decides to continue with this security theater, might I suggest you buy yourself a very cheap netbook to slip into your carry-on? For giggles, try the pink Disney-branded ASUS netbook with a Hannah Montana screensaver.

I read an account online where some TSA agents are not allowing unbranded bottles of toiletries. Because you know, someone who wants to use the same method Abdulmutallab used, would never think to decant bomb-making chemicals into an empty bottle of Head & Shoulders. Right?

By and large (in case you haven’t noticed), I am opposed to the way governments have tried to implement air travel security. I think most of it is based on knee-jerk reactions, and are a dog-and-pony show designed to deter only the casual troublemaker. This country is not willing to use profiling and probitive questions the way it’s done in Israel because we aren’t supposed to pick on people based on their race or national origin. Yet the government thinks it’s OK to introduce highly intrusive whole-body scanners that do what was promised by those cheap “X-ray glasses” you could buy years ago from the back of comic books: See through clothing. My husband and I disagree on this one—he thinks they’re fine and there’s nothing wrong with me. I, on the other hand, think they’ll be misused (there are no laws nor technological limitations) in place that prevent the images from being saved, for example. I can see a huge market for full body scans of celebrities. These scanners can also show if you’re wearing more than what’s expected. Is your baby wearing a soiled diaper? Is your grandfather wearing a pair of Depends undergarments? Maybe you wear extra padding to hide your mastectomy. These will all show up as anomalies, and you may likely be pulled aside for a secondary screening. Can we talk about invasion of privacy here? The ACLU agrees.

In a recent Morning Edition on NPR (“Passengers Cite Inconvenience as Main Concern“) Robert W. Mann Jr., one of the country’s leading airline industry consultants, put it best when he said travelers are more concerned with the inconvenience added security brings, not fear:

“Even for a trip of six hours like London-New York, the idea that you would lose three hours on each end of a trip makes it questionable,” Mann said. He said he is pleased that the Obama administration is conducting a top-to-bottom review of the Transportation Security Administration. Up to this point, Mann said, the agency’s security processes largely have been a failure. [My emphasis.]

“I would go further to say that I’d like to see the next billion dollars invested not in technology with X-rays and puffer machines, but rather with essentially police work done offshore to locate people who would do harm—whoever they may be, wherever they be—and before they ever get to an airport,” he said.

Mann said he worries about the soft underbelly of the nation’s airports, with their long lines of tightly clustered people waiting to go through security and into the safe side of the terminal. He believes more puffer machines—screening devices that the TSA says are capable of detecting traces of explosive residue on a person’s body or clothing—will not stop suicide bombers wrapped in vests of C-4 plastique.

In the meantime, what can do you as a traveler?

Consider leaving your rolling upright at home. It’s very convenient but carry-on policies are changing as quickly as today’s weather, and the rolling upright is likely a very easy target for airlines to ask to check in. Don’t forget, most airlines will then get to earn an extra $20 just by making you do this! If you are on airlines like American that charge even more for a second check-in item (and even more for a third), imagine how much more they can make! More than ever, keep your carry-on as light and as small as you can make it (even if it means wearing two layers of T-shirts to lighten your load!)

Stay away from unlabeled toiletry bottles. Or if you’re like some people, print your own professional-looking label to make it easier to identify the product you decanted into your small toiletry bottle. These days it’s very easy to find the product’s logo online for such purposes.

Consider paring down your purse to the bare essences and transferring the items to a travel wallet. Travel wallets, like the Baggallini Teenee bag I’ve reviewed, are a little bigger than a wallet, but have removable (or hideaway) straps so you can wear these on your body for security. Your other option is to use a security wallet to wear under your clothes (and there are versions with straps so you can wear it like a travel wallet). At minimum, your travel wallet should be able to carry your passport and ID, as well as credit cards and your boarding pass (which you can fold in half). Everything else you normally put in your purse, like a folding umbrella, make-up, compact mirror, hairbrush, etc. should go into a zip-lock baggie that you can stash in your carry-on. If all you have is your one carry-on, it is easier to claim it as your personal item.

Ship stuff in advance. This is actually quite feasible now. Flat-rate Priority Mail boxes mean you can ship quite a lot of things in the box for under $11. Even an overnight FedEx package will barely cost more than the cost of your check-in fee. If you are on your way home with a lot of newly acquired souvenirs, seriously consider shipping all of this stuff home. Or be like me and just buy small, flat things.