Changes In Travel Following Terror Attempt

Read Micheline Maynard's Blog For The New York Times, In Transit

Since the attempted Christmas Day bombing of Northwest flight 253, travelers can expect longer lines at airport security. Micheline Maynard, senior business correspondent for the New York Times, talks about what other changes we can expect in the holiday travel season.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Flying has changed since Christmas Day. Airports, airlines and the TSA implemented new security measures after the incident on Northwest Airlines Flight 253. That can mean longer lines, less baggage allowed on board, more pat-downs, even restrictions on when you can use blankets and the restroom aboard the plane.

The new rules are deliberately unpredictable, which can leave travelers confused and frustrated. If you've flown since Christmas Day, what changes did you see? We'd especially like to hear from those of you who were aboard international flights. Email us: talk@npr.org. The phone number is 800-989-8255. You can also join the conversation on our Web site. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And joining us now is Micheline Maynard. She's senior business correspondent for the New York Times, with us from her office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Nice to have you back in the program.

Ms. MICHELINE MAYNARD (Senior Business Correspondent, New York Times): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And what rules have changed? Or do we know what rules have changed?

Ms. MAYNARD: We know a little bit about what rules have changed. The most rule changes that have taken place are on international flights. And now, when people check in internationally to come back to the United States, they will undergo a couple of sets of searches. You already went thought the checkpoint, the security checkpoint. Now you'll go through a second set of searches. There'll be a pat-down. They'll probably go all through your carry-on bag. There was another set of restrictions that was put in place this week that seems to have been already amended. For a little while, people were being told to stay in their seats for the last hour of flight, keep their carry-on stowed and not to have anything on their laps, not even a pillow or a blanket.

But now, what we have been told is that those restrictions are up to the captain of the plane. He can order you to sit down. He can order you to turn everything in, or not. They're leaving it up to his jurisdiction.

CONAN: And also, we're told that the TSA has been deliberately vague about what they're doing in this country. Part of the idea is to be unpredictable. There are going to be different experiences at different airports.

Ms. MAYNARD: Yes. Actually they said that they don't want anybody to be able to game the system, and that the idea is that the security you have in Salt Lake might be different than the security you have in Philadelphia, you ought to be ready for anything. And you pretty much better be ready to show anybody your carry-on luggage at anytime, either at the checkpoint or at the gate itself.

CONAN: We got this email from Cherry(ph) in San Antonio. I few yesterday domestically, from Baltimore to Houston to San Antonio, no real difference, except Baltimore has a full body scanner, and I was randomly selected to go through it. They offered alternative of a pat-down. I took the scanner. And though it took a couple of minutes, it wasn't bad. I tried not to think about what the person looking at the scan might be seeing. Lines were not much longer or slower than usual at Christmastime. The screener seemed to be scrutinizing my ID very carefully, but did not even look at my baggie full of three-ounce liquids: eye drops, make up, shampoo. I thought that was interesting.

And can we expect more people to go through that secondary screening to be picked out for a pat-down, or if it's available through that whole-body imager.

Ms. MAYNARD: Yeah, I think if the staff is available. You have to remember that you have to have TSA agents available to do these kinds of things. One of my colleagues told me that she went through Kennedy Airport, and they actually rubbed on her palms to see if she had explosives on her palms. We've had people in Australia tell us that they were checking the soles of their feet. So it's really kind of an open question there.

CONAN: One of the things we've also heard about is a lot of international flights have those maps that you can follow on the little screen in front of you, and it shows you where you are on your flight. And, indeed, they've been turned off for the last hour or so of the flight.

Ms. MAYNARD: Right. That happened right away. That was actually ordered over the weekend. And the idea was that they didn't want any potential terrorist to be able to see where they were. They also told the pilots not to say anything about, you know, look at Niagara Falls below us or Yellowstone, that kind of thing. Well, that got rescinded pretty quickly, especially if you remember JetBlue airlines. They have the live TV coverage. And they have flights that leave from the Caribbean and from San Juan. And there was an announcement made that you're not going to be able to watch TV on the way home, and yet people leaving from Florida could watch TV. So the TVs are now back on on JetBlue.

CONAN: Okay. And, indeed, if you didn't - the alleged bomber in Detroit said he'd used that map to know when he was over Detroit. Of course, he could have looked out the window, too.

Ms. MAYNARD: He could've looked out the window. And also, you know, in the airline magazines, there are those route maps. And one of the executives that I talked said all you need is a watch to divide up where you are over the ocean, and then you can pretty much tell when you're getting close to the United States. So that idea kind of went out the window pretty quickly.

CONAN: Let's go next to Henry. Henry's calling from Virginia Beach.

HENRY (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

HENRY: I have flown Norfolk to Virginia - Norfolk to Orlando three times in the past six months, the most recent being flying down Christmas Eve morning and back last night. And I noticed no difference last night whatsoever in security for myself or any of the other horde that were standing in line.

CONAN: The line in front of the security checkpoint went just as quickly, or just slowly as usual?

HENRY: Just as quickly or slowly, depending on your perspective, right? And I was looking for things to be different. I didn't see anybody taken aside to be patted down. I didn't see anybody - I didn't see any of the TSA people, you know, looking at people more or less suspiciously. Their demeanor was the same as it always is...

CONAN: Okay.

HENRY: ...kind of somber.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Yeah. It's not the most thrilling job in the world. Henry, thanks very much for the call, and welcome home.

HENRY: You're welcome. Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email from Heidi: Going through TSA scan yesterday, I was selected for a pat down, which hadn't occurred to me in more than a year. I only fly once every three months. And now part of this process included swabbing my hands. My flying was not international, just from the local Sioux Falls, South Dakota Airport to Sacramento. It appeared every two or three people were being selected for this process. So, again, very different experiences at very different airports.

Ms. MAYNARD: That's right, and that's this idea of unpredictability. I wouldn't have thought Sioux Falls would be a place where they would be swabbing people. You know, I'm not surprised at JFK because it's, you know, such a big airport. But Sioux Falls seems like they'd almost would know everybody who walked in the door. But that is exactly what the TSA is intending with this.

CONAN: Let's go to Mike, Mike calling from Philadelphia.

MIKE (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Thanks. I'm good.

MIKE: I was listening to your program. It was very interesting. I flew from Montreal to Chicago, and then on to Philadelphia last night. And so we had a tremendous amount of security involved in that. And, of course, it was very different than anything I'd ever experienced on an international flight before.

CONAN: And what did that involve?

MIKE: Well, obviously, there was a tremendous amount of personnel around, customs and whatnot. And, of course, when you fly from Montreal, you actually go through all the U.S. Customs on the Canadian side of the border so that when you land in the United States, you just get off at a regular domestic terminal, as opposed to an international terminal.

But the thing that was most interesting, aside from seeming like a much higher percentage of people being checked - being checked inside our shoes, being checked the soles of our feet - we also had - once we got through customs, once we got through all the security, there was another round of security in the terminal itself. So, essentially, once we were discharged into the terminal to leave Montreal, we found ourselves at another security checkpoint where virtually - I think everybody was patted down, belts were loosen, shoes were taken off for a second time, and everyone's carry-on luggage was being searched.

CONAN: That's interesting. And Mickey Maynard, the - one of the things we're hearing about is that at some places - and I guess Montreal was one - you're going to start seeing a lot more of the inspectors around.

Ms. MAYNARD: That's right. And also, remember, you're flying internationally, even though it was from Canada to the United States. There have been real issues in Canada in complying with the security requirements. The Toronto Airport was an absolute zoo over the weekend. There were dozens of flights to the United States that were cancelled. And, essentially, Air Canada put a statement saying these issues are beyond our control. Please be patient with us. So it's really caused some friction between Canada and the United States, which is sort of ironic, since they are our biggest trading partner.

CONAN: And Mike, was there any difference in the amount of carry-on luggage you were allowed?

MIKE: Well, interestingly, when we first got to the airport, we've been advised via Montreal television that it might make sense to get to the airport for international flights up to six hours in advance.

Ms. MAYNARD: Oh.

CONAN: Whoa.

MIKE: And so we had done that. And when we first got to the airport and we were in line, we were told by somebody who was initially checking passports, basically, as we walked in the building, that there would be no carry-on luggage allowed on the plane. However, when we ultimately checked in, they said that a small carry-on would be available. They never made an offer of pillows or blankets. I don't know whether they would have on the flight, anyway.

CONAN: That's a fairly short flight. Yeah.

MIKE: That's exactly right. But one of the things that I just wanted to mention regarding, you know, people's attitudes, you know, in my experience and the experience that I saw around me, I did not see anybody who was frustrated with the level of security. Most people seemed grateful for it. The people who - I, as a traveler, and I think my fellow travelers were most frustrated with were the individuals who were not tolerant or patient of the security folks doing their jobs. They were the ones - you know, the people who seemed impatient were much more bothersome than the people who were just trying to keep us all safe.

CONAN: Okay. Mike, thanks very much.

MIKE: Thank you very much. I love the program.

CONAN: Thank you. Bye-bye. Here's an email we have from Paula in Ohio. We assume that security would be tighter and arrived a full two hours ahead of our flight. We got through the inspection without difficulty at about 2 p.m., but the line got much longer about half an hour later. Our gate area led to some international gates. Two or three times, a pair of TSA employees walked slowly back and forth through the crowd, looking around. Some people on our flight were given random pat downs that did not appear to be random. As far as I could tell, all of the people randomly chosen were younger with dark, shorter hair. I was not able to see their faces from where I was, so I don't know whether their appearance might be stereotyped as Middle Eastern.

In any case, that's one of the things that people are advocating. Nevertheless, you quickly run into civil liberties problems if you start picking out just one type of person.

Ms. MAYNARD: Yeah. And I think that's going to be a big issue as we go forward with this, because we've had security. We've certainly had security in the past. We had a lot of security after the 9/11 attacks. The security was dialed up again when there was a terrorist plot in London about three years ago in which they were going to mix chemicals with liquids onboard a plane. That dialed up - Britain, in fact, banned carry-on bags for a little while. In fact, Canada, Air Canada has said no carry-ons for the time being, except maybe a small purse or one piece of equipment like a laptop or a Blackberry.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. MAYNARD: But those things go away. The British ones only lasted a few days. It's very possible that by this time next week, maybe those Canadian restrictions will be lifted, as well.

CONAN: We're talking with Micheline Maynard, the senior business correspondent of the New York Times, about what's different at the airport on the security line and on the planes. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get Sherry(ph) on the line, Sherry with us from Mesa, Arizona.

SHERRY (Caller): Yeah. So I was calling - my personal experience when I decided that no airport security was necessarily going to keep us safe, we were coming back from Mexico. And while we are waiting for a plane, I bought a quart of vanilla in Mexico, put it on my carry-on, got to Houston, went through customs. I'd forgotten about the vanilla and didn't put it in my checked luggage.

So when we went through security in Houston, they got very excited over my bottle of vanilla, which was completely sealed, they could open it. They could smell it. They could see it was vanilla. I offered to drink it. Anyway, I got my vanilla confiscated, but what they missed was a very large folding knife that I always carry in my purse for self-protection that I had also forgotten to take out and put in my carry-on. And that got through no problem because they were so focused on the vanilla.

CONAN: Interestingly, Mickey(ph), there have been any number of tests where people have gone to test the TSA inspections and all kinds of things get missed.

Ms. MAYNARD: Yes, they haven't�

SHERRY: Yeah. Well, anyway, we got a big laugh out of that one when I got on the plane and I was getting else some hand lotion, and said, oh, look what went through.

CONAN: Sherry, hold on a second. Micheline Maynard?

Ms. MAYNARD: Well, I was just going to make the point that when the incident happened on Friday in Detroit, people were saying, how could you get syringes on the plane? You're actually allowed to bring syringes on a plane if you're a diabetic and you need your insulin shots. And you could bring empty syringes accompanied by medication. So, sort of, people are saying, well, how could this happen? Well, it could happen because it's allowed. I don't know the knife that you brought on was necessarily allowed at all.

CONAN: I think that might have been an error. Anyway, Sherry, thanks very much for the call.

SHERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email, this is from Adrian(ph) in Plantation, Florida: I fly every week for work. When I hear things like expect long lines, I have no idea how much extra time to budget. I'd like to hear something more specific about how much longer specific security screenings will take. For example, if I could learned that Fort Lauderdale Airport terminal three, east side, takes twice as now or three times as long, it would help me to plan my arrival time. Is there any place I can find more specific information on security line timing?

Ms. MAYNARD: Unfortunately, no. And that's by design. The hope is that flights will be able to leave when they're supposed to leave and arrive when they're supposed to arrive, but you're gonna have to bake time in at the beginning. And I actually got an email from a passenger who was pretty upset with me for reporting that they might hit delays. They got to the airport and they didn't need to leave all that extra time.

But, you know, I've had people told me that they sat in the airport terminal for six hours. So I don't think you need to spend six hours for a domestic flight, but I don't think you can run to the airport and expect to get on the plane with 30 minutes to spare anymore, either.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get one more caller in. Let's go to John, John with us from San Antonio.

JOHN (Caller): In my - thanks, Neal. My experience is also coming back from Mexico. And I actually did something that was kind of dumb. And then they made an announcement on the subsequent flight that would have saved me from getting my package destroyed. But I had taken an initial flight, and I had some mole, which was a Christmas present for my mother.

And I took it out, out of my checked bag to make sure it was okay and I thought, you know, I don't want to put it back in the checked bag and get it damaged, especially with, you know, it stains clothes. It's very smelly. If that get, you know, busted inside of my carry-on, that would be a huge bummer. So I took it out. We actually went through�

CONAN: For those who don't know, mole is a chocolate-based sauce.

JOHN: Yeah, yeah. So we went through - and it's actually available in - you can get it powder, or you can get it paste. And so we go to the first gate of the checkpoint, and everything was okay for the first check point. And then we go through and we're waiting. And then they had, around the corner, a secondary checkpoint, and we were all routed down another hallway and back around to the jet way.

There, they were looking, and the guy, looked at the box, and ye goes: Oh, is it mole? And I said: Yeah. And he goes: Powder? And when he said, powder, I was, like, I just - I initially knew. I instantly knew it was going to be destroyed. I said, No. It's paste. And he goes: Oh, man. Sorry. And he punched a hole right through the top of it.

CONAN: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: And he tossed it in the trash. So - and then and when I got on the subsequent flight, they said: Hey, if you've got anything from duty free, you know, they're going to hand it to you if you have to get on another flight. Make sure and put any (unintelligible) you have from your duty free in your checked baggage...

CONAN: Oh, so that might have saved you. That might have saved you. Yeah.

JOHN: �which if I'd heard that before, you know, that flight, I would have know not to get it out.

CONAN: All right, John. Thanks very much. And we're sorry about the last mole sauce.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JOHN: Thanks.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And Micheline Maynard, thank you very much for your time today.

Ms. MAYNARD: My pleasure, Neal. Thanks a lot.

CONAN: Micheline Maynard, senior business correspondent for the New York Times, with us from her office in Ann Arbor.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION's fourth annual obit show. Send us an email for your pick for somebody who passed on this past year that you'd like to think we should all remember. The email address is talk@npr.org. And join us tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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