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THE TSA GOES INTO CYA MODE
By Joe Brancatelli
January 3, 2010 -- Today's latest announcement from the Transportation Security Administration that it is implementing new security measures for international flights headed to the United States means the agency has gone into full CYA mode.
In short, the announcement is mindless, full of gobbledygook and virtually useless for travelers trying to figure out how to reasonably prepare for a flight to the United States. If you doubt my assessment, I invite you to examine it yourself here.
Okay, now that we have established the reality of what is going on at the TSA, let's try to figure out what we have to do to survive the next period on the road.
For starters, expect more nit-picky, phony-baloney tactics at security checkpoints around the nation and around the world. As they have been since the failed attack on Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day, security screeners will paw over more of your carry-on belongings, make more silly claims about what may or may not be permitted and generally treat you like a potential terrorist because you may be carrying an unmarked bottle of shampoo. You will certainly have to leave more time to clear security checkpoints starting tomorrow.
Expect more secondary screenings and pat-downs, too. This is likely to be random. You remember "random" from the days right after 9/11, don't you? The first two people on line to board the plane are "randomly" pulled aside for extra screening at the gate.
On international flights headed to the United States, assume secondary screenings and pat-downs will be standard for every passenger.
During flights on international itineraries headed to the United States, expect some skittish flight crews to make you stay in your seat during the last hour or so of flying. Expect others to take away your blankets or restrict your access to your carry-on bags. These procedures are no longer imposed by the TSA--it backed off that stuff late last week--but the agency has empowered crews to enforce these restrictions if they wish. Most flight crews are not playing this game. But if you run into a flight attendant who does, be smart: Don't argue. You won't win.
One substantive change that the TSA implements at midnight has to do with routings from or through places that the United States has branded "state sponsors of terrorism" or nations the U.S. has decided are "countries of interest." If your itinerary includes any of these states, expect several layers of intrusive security, including inane questioning, obsessive attention to your carry-on and checked bags and pat-downs or other physical inspections of your person.
Which nations are involved? Why would you expect the TSA to tell you? But we can infer these states, at least, are targeted: Cuba, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
One final and important warning: Many international carriers have imposed a one-carry-on-bag rule in recent days because the new security screening has caused long lines at checkpoints. And one nation, Canada, has officially banned all carry-on bags on flights headed to the United States. You can examine that insane rule, imposed by Canada's equivalent of the TSA, here. Check with your carrier for its current rules for carry-ons on flights headed to the United States. Assume nothing.
Now you can ask the obvious question: Would any of these new rules and regulations have actually stopped the so-called Underwear Bomber from boarding NW Flight 253? Of course not. He didn't have any contraband in his carry-on bag and most pat-downs wouldn't have caught the small amount of explosive material he stashed in his drawers.
But these new rules are meant to show you that the TSA is on the case. The more it makes the flying experience inconvenient and full of nits being picked, the more it thinks that you think it is doing its job.
We know better. And, frankly, so does the TSA. But this is CYA time and when government agencies cover their keister, we pay the price--in time, in convenience and in sanity.
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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.
THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.
This column is Copyright © 2010 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2009 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.