— Airports around the world have tightened security following the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, but in-flight rules have reportedly been eased after a two-day clampdown.
At the captain's discretion, passengers can once again have blankets and other items on their laps or move about the cabin during the tail end of flight, two industry officials briefed on the situation said Monday.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because federal safety officials had not publicly announced the changes.
The Department of Homeland Security has issued a new set of security measures for the Transportation Security Administration, airports and airlines — especially foreign carriers — to follow.
While domestic passengers “should not expect to see the same thing at every airport,” TSA said heightened security procedures would include increased vigilance and visibility that may (or may not) take the form of gate screening, added presence of law enforcement officers and canine teams, and other activities.
International travelers, however, are sure to notice a difference. New security measures for international flights heading toward the U.S., TSA said, will require increased gate screening “including pat-downs and bag searches.”
Virgin Atlantic Airlines is telling travelers heading to the U.S. that there will be “extra screening of passengers and hand baggage at the gate immediately before boarding.”
Air Canada posted notice that, under the TSA-imposed rules, “during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, and will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps.” And Canada’s WestJet notified passengers that these and other new procedures, such as the limit of one carry-one bag per passengers, are scheduled to be in effect until at least December 30.
In a memo sent to airlines (but not posted on the TSA Web site), airlines flying to the U.S. are instructed to turn off any in-flight entertainment systems with embedded maps or GPS programs showing the plane’s exact location. Pilots and crew members are also told not to make announcements identifying landmarks below.
New rules, new problems
Rolled out during one of the busiest travel days of the year, the new rules immediately caused confusion, cancellations and delays at many airports.
Some U.S.-bound flights from London’s Heathrow and other British airports were delayed up to five hours. On Sunday morning, a spokesperson for Vancouver International Airport reported delays of 30 to 90 minutes for flights destined to the U.S. At Toronto Pearson International Airport, spokesperson Patricia Krale reported “significant delays for passengers on their way to the U.S. as everyone familiarizes themselves with the new regulations.”
On Sunday, some passengers were waiting so long to clear security at some Canadian airports that Air Canada (and Jazz) announced that it would cancel some scheduled hourly flights between Toronto and several cities in the Northeast. The carrier also warned that some of its Canada-bound flights from the U.S. were experiencing delays due to late inbound aircraft.
Changes in carry-on luggage rules are also causing confusion. Until Saturday, most airlines allowed passengers to board with a standard-sized carry-on bag, plus one additional bag usually described as a laptop bag, purse or briefcase. Those rules still stand for domestic flights and flights leaving the United States. On incoming flights, however, passengers can board with just one small carry-on item. For now, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, Air Canada and many other airlines are allowing passengers to check extra carry-on-sized bags for no extra charge.
TSA said it will “continuously review these measures to ensure the highest levels of security,” so travelers could very well see changes to the rules rushed out over the weekend. Meantime, here are some answers to help you navigate your way in the immediate future.
A: For now, security checkpoint requirements for passengers departing U.S. airports remain the same; most of the new security measures apply to flights heading to the U.S. from other countries. But as Homeland Security’s Secretary Janet Napolitano warned, some new security measures put in place “are designed to be unpredictable,” so you may not see the same procedures in force everywhere. Bottom line? Be ready for anything.
A: Given the confusion over the new rules and possible delays at domestic and international security checkpoints, it’s a good idea to head to the airport as early as possible, especially if you’re traveling on an incoming international flight. American Airlines, for example, is urging passengers to arrive at least three hours early for an international flight to the U.S. Due to long lines, American and United has also announced a change fee waiver for customers flying from Canada to the United States. Other airlines may follow suit.
Do what you can to minimize delays: go online to get a boarding pass and to pay for checked luggage, and double-check to make sure all items in your carry-on bag meet TSA requirements. This will not be a good time to argue that your 6-ounce tube of toothpaste should be allowed through security because the tube is only half-full.
A: No. Because passengers are no longer able to take more than one carry-on bag onto a U.S.-bound flight, many airlines are temporarily waiving the checked bag fee for additional carry-on bags turned away. That waiver is temporary and only applies to bags that would have met an airline’s size and weight definition of a carry-on bag, but not on any bag that would have otherwise traveled as checked luggage.
Bottom line: try to fit items you might need during your flight into one carry-on bag. Check your airline’s size and weight restrictions for carry-on bags and get out your tape measure before heading to the airport. And be prepared for these rules to change: late Sunday evening, for example, WestJet announced that it would no longer accept roller bags or larger backpacks as carry-on luggage.
A: Rules may change, but some arilines are requiring passengers to put away personal items, such as electronic equipment, and to remain in their seats for the final hour of their flight. Accessing overhead bins or visiting the lavatory during those times will be prohibited. In-flight entertainment systems with embedded maps or GPS systems will also be turned off. Bottom line: make sure to use the restroom before the final hour of a long international flight.
A: Most likely. It’s a good idea to arrive at the airport as early as possible. Bring snacks, books and other items to keep yourself occupied and calm while waiting in line. And be sure to print out and/or program into your cell phone the contact numbers for your airline, car rental agency and hotel. If you miss your flight because of security delays, you’ll need to get on the phone right away to rebook your reservations.
A: It’s hard to tell. It’s likely that some of the restrictions will be changed and/or relaxed over the next few days and weeks, so keep an eye on airport, airline and government Web sites.
You can also follow changes and updates on msnbc.com’s Travel Tips page.