As a result of Nigerian terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 while en route to Detroit from Amsterdam on Friday (the Al Qaeda affiliate’s liquid- and powder-based explosive failed to detonate and the plane landed safely), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is heightening security measures for air travel. New policies for overseas flights arriving in the U.S. include increased “gate screening” (arbitrary pat downs and bag searches while passengers wait to board) and restrictions on in-flight activity (like prohibiting movement about the cabin, or holding items in one’s lap, for the last hour of flight). Within the U.S., the agency is beefing up the presence of bomb-sniffing K-9 units on the prowl for “suspicious”-looking (and smelling) passengers at airports nationwide and cracking down on existing rules regarding carry-ons.
For example, I was barred from entering the security checkpoint yesterday while flying from Cincinnati to New York before consolidating my three small bags (a shopping bag, tote, and purse) into two – the maximum number officially allowed, but a rule often not strictly enforced. At the gate, agents handed out pink tags to all passengers with larger carry-ons well before boarding, stating a lack of overhead storage on the aircraft (in fact, there was plenty of room; many airlines are now limiting access to overhead bins for security purposes).
Despite these stiff measures, the thwarted attack has many questioning the strength of aviation security – like why powdered explosives are so difficult to detect, and how a suspected terrorist was able to board a flight in the first place, or at least wasn’t more carefully screened (Abdulmutallab was placed in a U.S. database of suspected terrorists in November and paid for his flight in cash). Because it failed to catch these painfully obvious flags, the system is far from foolproof, as Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano bluntly conceded today, prompting President Obama to order a full review of airport security and no-fly list procedures.
With the current threat advisory on “high” (orange), flyers should prepare for added hassles during travel over the next few weeks by arriving at airports extra early (the TSA recommends 2 hours before your departure time), being patient in the face of inevitable lines and delays, and following procedures carefully. Check out the TSA’s list of hints for easing holiday travel at www.tsa.gov.