New air terror brings another travel chaos

Taking off your shoes is no longer enough.

Security agents may pat the soles of your feet, work up your legs to your waist and run a wand across your whole body. Bags may be searched even after they pass the scanner. Bathroom breaks may be eliminated for the last hour of international flights. Blankets on your lap on those flights are verboten, too. Forget about that extra carry-on bag. And those controversial body scanners that can see under passengers’ clothes? They could show up at more airports.

The weekend after a 23-year-old Nigerian man allegedly tried to blow up a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit, long security lines caused Frank Casanova to miss a flight from Jacksonville to Detroit even though he arrived two hours before departure.

BACKGROUND: Terror suspect came from elite family, best schools
YEMEN: Airliner plot raises fears about al-Qaeda
LOCAL COVERAGE: Details of Detroit flight, suspect charged
SECURITY: TSA imposes new restrictions on fliers after failed bomb attempt

“You could tell everyone was watching everything,” says Casanova, 39.

Every time a terrorist plot to take down an airplane comes to light, stringent security restrictions ratchet up at airports across the world. And every time, the measures can turn the most leisurely vacation into a logistical nightmare for travelers — at least for a while.

Officials once again are wrestling with the uncomfortable reality of the post-9/11 world, where convenience and rights to privacy are sometimes trumped by the need for heightened security:

Two more scares this weekend underscored the anxiety.

•The same Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit requested emergency assistance after a Nigerian passenger “spent an unusually long time in the aircraft lavatory,” according to Homeland Security spokeswoman Sara Kuban. She said officials determined the incident was “due to legitimate illness.”

•In Phoenix, two men coming in from Orlando were questioned after passengers reported strange behavior, according to The Arizona Republic. Police found nothing dangerous.

The Christmas security scare interrupted President Obama’s family vacation in Hawaii. The president received several updates from his national security team and ordered a review of air security procedures. Some changes already are in effect.

For the time being, passengers flying to the USA must remain in their seats for about an hour before their flight lands and put away personal items, such as electronic equipment, bags, pillows and other bulky items, said two Transportation Security Administration officials familiar with the new rules. They requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Domestic passengers are not experiencing such restrictions but will see more bomb-sniffing dogs, airport police and TSA officers who observe passengers and question those who appear suspicious, the two TSA officials said. The agency is increasing “gate screening” — pulling passengers waiting to board out of line to search their belongings.

“The only thing that people traveling domestically are going to notice is increased police presence and greater use of canine explosive detection teams,” said Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Concern about the incidents dominated the Sunday talk shows, where lawmakers from both parties raised questions about how Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was able to board the airplane despite warnings — including from his own father — of his possible terrorist ties. Abdulmutallab is charged with attempting to destroy the aircraft with highly dangerous explosives.

“There is much to investigate here,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., on ABC’s This Week. “It’s amazing to me that an individual like this, who was sending out so many signals, could end up getting on a plane to the U.S.”

International travel

The heaviest impact from stricter security rules will fall on international travelers flying to the USA, according to statements posted on airline websites, including Air Canada and British Airways.

Airlines and the TSA urge passengers to arrive at least three hours before departure for international flights. More airlines are restricting carry-on bags to one. Some waive baggage fees to encourage checked luggage. Pat-downs are more frequent at checkpoints. Passengers will be prohibited from holding items such as blankets or coats on their laps before landing.

“Some of these restrictions seem pretty silly to me,” says Michigan Rep. Pete Hoekstra, the top-ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, a frequent flier who admits that “I really hate to check a bag.”

Still, he advises travelers to “suck it up and accept it.”

Hoekstra said he noticed no major differences and found the lines unexpectedly short Sunday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. He was preparing to board a flight to Detroit, to the same airport where the targeted Northwest flight made an emergency landing Friday.

Jeffrey Mayhew, a Memphis business traveler who says he logs 100,000 air miles a year, was “pleasantly surprised” when he checked in to Boston’s Logan International Airport this weekend. He said he arrived 30 minutes earlier than usual but breezed through security.

“I figured with holiday travelers and the Northwest incident security would be more of an issue,” he said. “It was not at all.”

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano warned travelers Sunday to expect the unexpected at airport check-in.

Speaking Sunday on ABC’s This Week, she advised passengers “to show up a little bit earlier at the airport during this heavy holiday season and to recognize we’re going to be doing different things at different airports.”

At the Grand Cayman Island Airport this weekend, travelers to Miami were told to use the bathroom before boarding their 90-minute flight. After clearing a magnetometer, they went through a second security check where all removed their shoes for a second time and some were patted down. Tables were set up for hand searches of carry-ons.

One security expert questioned the effectiveness of heightened scrutiny.

“I would feel a lot better about it if I felt that what they are doing was meaningful,” says aviation security consultant Douglas Laird, former security director at Northwest Airlines. “For the life of me, I don’t understand what they’re achieving.”

Suspect’s father warned U.S.

One big question: Why was Abdulmutallab allowed to board a flight to the USA?

Federal prosecutors say his plot to blow up the plane was foiled when the device, rather than exploding, started a fire, according to court papers. Passengers and crew extinguished the flames and subdued him. After being treated for burns at a Detroit hospital, Abdulmutallab is in federal prison on charges of trying to destroy the airliner.

The London-educated mechanical engineer was estranged from his wealthy Nigerian family and has claimed ties to al-Qaeda. A month ago, his father, Alhaji Umar Mutallab, warned U.S. Embassy officials of concerns about his son’s religious beliefs.

Hoekstra says he wants to know why authorities didn’t act on the father’s warning. “This is a well-respected government and business official,” he said. “There appears to have been some kind of a breakdown.”

That view was echoed by a senior House Intelligence Committee Democrat. “Clearly, a screening failure occurred in this case,” said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif.

Abdulmutallab’s name “was on a general list” of more than 500,000 people the federal government was tracking — not the much more limited no-fly list, Napolitano told CNN.

“There was not the kind of credible information … that would move him up on the list,” she said.

“The system worked,” she said on CNN. “Everybody responded quickly, effectively, without panicking and shutting the airline systems or air travel.”

The latest security breach could speed the installation of body-scanning machines. The machines can detect non-metallic objects, such as plastic or liquid explosives that elude metal detectors.

Critics, including the American Civil Liberties Union and some members of the House of Representatives, have denounced the equipment as overly invasive.

Calls for use of the scanners are getting louder.

“This definitely underscores the severe need to make sure the public gets better protected with new technology that can scan under your clothes,” said AJ Castilla, a screener at Boston’s Logan International Airport and head of a local screeners’ union.

The TSA has installed the machines at major airports in New York City, Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, Phoenix, Las Vegas and Miami, and the agency announced in September that it planned to buy 150 more of the $100,000 machines.

More widespread use of the scanners would be costly and could delay security lines because the machines are slower than metal detectors.

“It’s going to be extraordinarily expensive, and you’re going to have to get to the airport a lot earlier,” said Randall Larsen, director of the Institute for Homeland Security, a research organization in Virginia.

The latest incident could step up pressure on the Senate to confirm President Obama’s nominee for TSA administrator, Erroll Southers.

The assistant homeland security chief at Los Angeles International Airport, Southers was approved easily by two Senate committees this fall, but Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., is holding up his nomination in a dispute over whether TSA’s 50,000 screeners should be allowed to unionize.

Balancing safety, efficiency

Security experts say the latest threat shows the magnitude of the challenge of keeping air travel safe but efficient.

The TSA and Homeland Security spent more than $795 million from fiscal years 2002 through 2008 on checkpoint screening technologies, according to an October report by the Government Accountability Office.

Technology exists to detect dangerous liquids, but “how to take that technology and embed it into the security process in a way that doesn’t clog up the lanes for hours and hours still is a challenge,” said Tom Ridge, who became the nation’s first Homeland Security secretary after 9/11.

Court papers say Abdulmutallab brought explosives and a syringe aboard the plane. He might have been foiled by a pat-down but not necessarily, said Laird, the security consultant. To be effective, such searches have to be more intrusive.

“The American public finds that abhorrent,” he said. “When they pat you down at the airport, it’s never done properly.”

Risk will always be a part of travel, experts say.

“I know there is a lot of finger-pointing going on, but the magnitude of ensuring that every passenger traveling to the United States is not a terrorist — we’ll never be able to eliminate that risk,” Ridge said.

Except for international travel, this may show the need to fix the rail system in USA.

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