If you're planning to fly in the foreseeable future, brace yourself for big changes at the airport. The Department of Homeland Security has raised alert levels for all commercial flights and tightened airport security measures after British officials disrupted a plot to blow up multiple trans-Atlantic flights bound for the United States.
Here's a look at what passengers now face. Keep in mind that policies may not be uniformly enforced at every airport.
How early should I get to the airport?
Kathryn Sudeikis, president of the American Society of Travel Agents, suggests three hours for international flights and two hours for domestic flights. Generally speaking, security screeners are being extra-vigilant, and if you end up in a slow line, you could miss your flight. There are some reports of security lines that go out the door (which is not unusual this time of year). But maybe you'll be lucky: There are still reports of travelers making it through the security checkpoint in minutes.
What can I bring on a plane?
The Transportation Security Administration's list of prohibited items, which includes knives, baseball bats and ammunition, remains in effect. All hand luggage will be physically inspected at the departure gate, according to the TSA. Additionally, on all U.S. flights, all liquids and gels must be checked in with your luggage. This includes all beverages, shampoo, suntan lotion, contact lens solutions, creams, toothpaste, hair gel and other items of similar consistency. The only exceptions are baby formula, liquid prescription medicines (the name on the bottle must match the name on your ticket), and essential over-the-counter liquid medications, which must be presented for inspection at the checkpoint. Pills, however, present no problems.
Can I still buy a cup of coffee after going through the security checkpoint?
Yes, but finish it before boarding. Even a beverage purchased past a security checkpoint must be consumed before you get on the plane, according to the TSA. You won't be allowed to board with it.
What if I'm on a flight from the United Kingdom to the United States?
The screening process for passengers will be "more extensive," according to officials. All hand luggage will be physically inspected at the departure gate, according to the TSA.
How do I rethink my packing strategy?
For the time being, the TSA will allow carry-on bags on domestic flights as long as you follow the liquids and gel rules, but you should have a backup plan in case things change universally or at a particular airport. According to the TSA, electronic devices such as laptops and cell phones are allowed on board. Some solid or powdered cosmetics are also permitted, though the TSA recommends checking them.
What if I'm traveling with beverages for kids? Or if I'm prone to dehydration?
The TSA allows you to carry on baby formula, breast milk or juice if a baby or small child is traveling with you. If you're an adult, you're out of luck. So drink up before leaving the airport. Once airborne, ask a flight attendant for water immediately. Airlines should be stocking their flights with extra beverages, particularly on longer trans-Atlantic flights. "I bet that if this prohibition against liquids becomes permanent, airlines will have to begin loading up more water and supplying it to passengers more quickly and more often," says Sally Watkins, vice chairwoman of the Association of Retail Travel Agents.
Will there likely be any long-term changes in security?
Yes. Travel experts believe this could not only change the way passengers are screened, but could even change the TSA itself. "The Transportation Security Administration and some members of Congress will likely use this opportunity to argue for the removal of the cap on the number of airport screeners," says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a group that represents corporate travelers and their companies. Airport screening will become more intensive, too, says Scot Phelps, a professor of disaster management at Metropolitan College in New York. "I anticipate a move towards (Israeli airline) El-Al levels of security — 100 percent bag scanning, more aggressive interviewing of passengers, and more physical searching of carry-on baggage," he says.
If my flight is canceled, what does my airline owe me?
Technically, nothing. No free hotel, no meal vouchers, no phone card. A flight cancellation of this kind would be considered a "force majeure" event, which is beyond the control of the carrier. For example, American Airlines canceled three of its 16 scheduled Thursday flights from the United Kingdom to the United States. Under its conditions of carriage — the legal agreement between the carrier and its passengers — its only obligation is to issue a full refund. They don't even have to put you on the next flight. But airlines have loosened some of their rules in the wake of the foiled terrorist plot. For customers traveling within or between the United States, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands whose tickets were issued no later than Aug. 9, American allows a change in your travel date up to Sept. 1. Or you can request a refund in the form of a travel voucher for nonrefundable tickets. United Airlines has also changed some of its policies.
Should I consider buying travel insurance?
If there are future cancellations, chances are good that the airlines will waive penalties for ticket changes again. But if you're planning a vacation, then you also stand to lose more than an airline ticket, and the right insurance policy can be helpful. Some policies include coverage for delays and reimburse passengers for additional travel and lodging expenses until travel becomes possible. Many insurance plans include 24-hour emergency travel assistance that can be accessed worldwide for help in rebooking canceled flights, rerouting trips or making or changing hotel reservations, says Dan McGinnity, a spokesman for Travel Guard International, an insurance company.
Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman, an independent producer for National Public Radio and a syndicated travel columnist. He has a blog called Ellipses.