Your airport survival guide

September 23, 2002

Flying is lots more complicated these days. Here's how to sidestep the obstacles.

 

Your airport survival guide

Jump to:Choose article section... When to arrive at the airport Be careful what you pack Preparation is the key to avoiding hassles Web sites for travelers  

Flying is lots more complicated these days. Here's how to sidestep the obstacles.

By Risa R. Weinreb

Shuttle? Maybe they should call it the "shuffle."

Flying between Boston and New York recently, psychiatrist Barrie Greiff was asked to remove his shoes for inspection three times by airport security personnel. "When I went through the sensor, it kept beeping. There must be some metal in the last of my shoe," says the Cambridge, MA, physician.

Al Gore can feel his pain. In June, the former vice president was randomly selected for secondary screening, complete with wanding. Not just once, but before two separate flights.

Ah, flying. Far from being half the fun, getting there now causes twice the confusion. How far in advance do you have to get to the airport? Can you pack your nail scissors in your carry-on? Should you still use e-tickets?

These concerns have become more urgent as travel patterns return to normal following the Sept. 11 attacks. Not only do passengers have to contend with chronic aviation problems, such as delays and overbooking, frustrated passengers are now dealing with a whole new category of security hassles, such as hour-long check-in lines, or the evacuation of entire terminals because a metal detector wasn't plugged in.

The biggest change affecting air travelers is the creation of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Part of the Department of Transportation, the agency was established last November and given responsibility for all aspects of civil aviation security—from baggage screeners to air marshals. For travelers, it means that the TSA determines everything from the layout of checkpoints to whether Aunt Betsy can carry her insulin syringes on board the plane.

Here's an update on what to expect when you fly these days—and how to cope, even with the unexpected.

When to arrive at the airport

"The good news is you no longer have to be at the airport three hours in advance," says Sascha Segan, author of Frommer's Fly Safe, Fly Smart (John Wiley & Sons, 2002). "Although the lines are back, they aren't as bad."

However, the time needed to clear security checkpoints can still vary wildly. "The main problem is the inconsistency," remarks Kevin P. Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, an advocate for business travelers. "From one day to the next, it can be 10 minutes or two hours at the same airport." Mitchell himself recently caught his flight with just moments to spare after waiting nearly 90 minutes for screening at Philadelphia International Airport.

For the best estimate of how early to show up, contact your airline, which provides recommended arrival times for different airports.

Be careful what you pack

Each traveler is limited to one carry-on bag and one personal item (such as a purse or briefcase), according to new regulations from the TSA. Items such as nail clippers, nail files, tweezers, and safety razors (including disposable razors) are permitted in carry-ons, according to the agency. Prohibited implements range from the glaringly obvious (box cutters) to the less so (ski poles). Many of the prohibited items, however, can travel as checked baggage.

If you absent-mindedly try to walk through security with your pool cue (another banned item), you'll probably have to kiss it good-bye: Unless you have time to run back to your car, there are no provisions for returning items once you leave them at the checkpoint. Items most commonly impounded include scissors, pocket knives, corkscrews, and mace. "A lot of people forget what's attached to their key chains," comments Deirdre O'Sullivan, a TSA spokesperson.

To organize their belongings, many travelers have started using clear plastic bags. That way, security personnel can peer at the suitcase contents without spilling out your underwear. An added bonus: The bags help reduce wrinkling. You can accomplish the same thing with packing organizers—folders with mesh panels. They're sold by travel-supply companies like Magellan's ( www.magellans.com , 800-962-4943) and TravelSmith (www.travelsmith.com, 800-950-1600).

You might also want to think twice about locking your check-in baggage. In the near future, all checked bags will be examined by explosives-detection system (EDS) machines. If an alarm sounds, screeners must open the suitcase. If they have to break it open, they will.

Preparation is the key to avoiding hassles

Fully 32 percent of business travelers feel that the new security procedures make their trips "a big hassle," and 18 percent report flying less because of the associated inconvenience, according to the 2002 National Travel Monitor from Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown/ Yankelovich Partners. Understanding how the new procedures work (or don't work) is the best bet to minimize hassles. Here's what you need to know.

What to wear.Setting off the metal detector is the fastest way to assure you'll have an up-close and personal encounter with security personnel. Limit metal objects worn on your person or clothing, such as large belt buckles and bangle jewelry. Some women have even stopped wearing underwire bras when they fly. Sneakers are out, loafers are in, to facilitate quick changes if your shoes get tested for explosive residues. At some airports, all travelers are required to place their shoes on the X-ray conveyor belt.

Getting the seat you want.Want to score that window or aisle seat? Many airlines earmark up to a third of the most desirable locations for their most profitable passengers: frequent fliers and full-fare economy customers. So if you're flying on a cheaper fare, book early.

Or do the opposite: Many plum seats are assigned on the day of the flight, including exit rows and bulkhead seats. You have the best chance of nabbing these by making a request at the ticket counter.

E-tickets vs paper. E-tickets are flying high again. "The big advantage is you can't lose your ticket," says Marlene Kowalsky a travel agent with St. Clair Travel in O'Fallon, IL, and national chair for consumer awareness with the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA).

Although passengers bearing flimsy computer printouts had difficulties getting through security immediately after Sept. 11, that snafu has been resolved. You can print out your booking from the Web site, confirmation e-mail, or receipt. More airlines are also installing check-in machines in airports, so you can get a boarding pass without waiting in line.

In the past, a paper ticket had been preferable if a flight was canceled and you needed to change to a different airline. That's not necessarily true anymore. Airlines including American, Continental, Finnair, Northwest, and United have agreements allowing them to read each other's e-ticket information. If needed, passengers can be rebooked between these airlines without having to print out a paper ticket first.

Generally, the only downside to e-tickets lies in worst-case scenarios: if an airline that declares bankruptcy shuts down completely, or if all the computer systems go down.

Checking in.Curbside check-in of baggage is now available on an airline-by-airline basis. Travelers should contact their airline to see if it is offered at the airport they're using.

If you need to check luggage (and there's no curbside check-in), you have to check in at the ticket counter. For identification, the counter agent will ask for a government-issued ID, such as a driver's license or passport. Travelers should also be prepared to show their boarding pass and ID at security and the departure gate.

Security checkpoints. Remember Dr. Greiff and his footwear? Although he thinks twice about wearing those shoes before flying, he reports, "I've subsequently worn them, and they haven't 'beeped.' I guess it depends on the sensitivity of the machine—and maybe luck."

Over recent months, inconsistent screening procedures and long wait times have frustrated air travelers. Much of the confusion has been caused by the mish-mash of private companies that had previously overseen airport security, each applying different rules and standards. By Nov. 19, passenger screening operations at all 429 US commercial airports will be run by federal workers trained and supervised by the Transportation Security Administration.

"Our goal is to have a wait time of less than 10 minutes," says Deirdre O'Sullivan of TSA. Already, improvement has occurred at Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI), which in April became the first airport federalized by the TSA. Wait times at security have been reduced to about 12 minutes.

Many security areas are adding serpentine lines, along with animated signs advising travelers to place coins, pagers, etc., in their carry-ons. "We do have a problem with people forgetting their pagers, cell phones, and keys at the bins by the checkpoint," notes O'Sullivan.

One of the TSA goals is to make security procedures more uniform throughout the country. Under the new regulations, here's what's in store for passengers at airport security:

As you approach the checkpoint, you'll have to show your boarding pass or e-ticket confirmation along with your government-issued photo ID. Only ticketed passengers will be allowed beyond checkpoints, although arrangements can be made with the airlines for nontravelers to accompany children and travelers who need special assistance to the gate.

The first exam comes at the walk-through metal detector—called "magnetometer" by security insiders. If an alarm sounds, the passenger will be asked to step aside for further screening, including "wanding" using a hand-held metal detector. Travelers can request examination by same-sex screeners.

At the same time, carry-on items will be subject to X-ray search. Laptops must be removed from the cases they're carried in and sent through the X-ray separately. O'Sullivan reminds travelers not to grab the carrying case and forget the laptop.

Certain travelers and their bags will also be randomly selected for more intensive screening at the security checkpoint or the gate, which is why you'll see sweet little old ladies or infants in buntings getting full-blown frisking. For security reasons, the TSA declines to specify how these random passengers are selected.

To answer questions about the new security procedures, the TSA has a consumer hotline: 866-289-9673. Travelers should call this number to double-check what items they can carry on board, make complaints about screening searches, report violations, or deal with other concerns.

Film facts.Always put film in your carry-on bags, never in checked-in suitcases. The new explosives detection systems used to X-ray checked baggage can fog film.

Although the low radiation used with carry-ons will not noticeably damage film, the effect of these X-rays is cumulative. If film will undergo more than five scans, ask for a hand search—a request that is not always honored. Digital cameras and memory cards are not affected by X-rays.

For serious photo buffs, professional photographer and guidebook author Robert W. Bone, based in Honolulu, offers this tip: "Remove film from the plastic canisters, put the rolls in a clear plastic bag, then enclose that bag in a lead bag. That way, if you are asked to open the lead bag, you present your film in a convenient manner for visual inspection."

Delays and cancellations. So now you've gotten you to your gate. Will your airplane be there? Maybe not. About two out of every 10 flights arrived at their destination late during the first five months of 2002, and one out of every 100 flights was canceled, according to the Department of Transportation.

If your flight is delayed or canceled, ignore the urge to run to the airline's customer service desk. It's the typical traveler's first instinct, but it's the wrong one, especially if a throng of irate passengers is already ahead of you. "By the time you get to an agent, there's no more space on the next flight out," points out travel agent Kowalsky. Instead, call your travel agent, or the airline's toll-free number, to rebook your flight.

Finally, it's always a good idea to call your airline the day before your flight to verify departure time and reconfirm your seat.

The author is a freelance writer based in Larkspur, CA.

Web sites for travelers

Air Transport Associationwww.airlines.org
The trade organization of the principal US airlines, it offers facts and figures about the airline industry.

Bureau of Transportation Statisticswww.bts.gov
Convoluted to use, but it has good information about things like airline on-time performance.

BTC (Business Travel Coalition) Traveloguewww.btctravelogue.com
Provides daily headlines of key business travel news.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)www.faa.gov
Nifty airport status page, with real-time information about delays. Also safety data and more.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA)www.tsa.gov
Provides travel tips, plus a complete listing of what is—and is not—permitted in carry-on baggage.

 

 



Risa Weinreb. Your airport survival guide.

Medical Economics

2002;18:35.

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