A remarkable change took place in American airports at the start of 2003, but you probably wouldn't notice unless you looked really hard.
On Jan. 1, the newly created Transportation Security Agency took control of airport security, putting federal employees on the front line in the war against terrorism, adhering to the federal mandate to have 100% of all checked luggage screened for explosives. But instead of increasing delays for travelers, the TSA has actually made their lives easier, replacing underpaid, undertrained and unmotivated private security with a well-trained, properly compensated federal force.
"I haven't heard a single complaint, and believe me, I would have heard by now," said Christopher Elliott, editor of the consumer travel Web site Elliott.org, where he receives thousands of comments from travelers each year. "The TSA has surpassed all expectations. Just before the new year, you had this parade of pundits saying there would be terrible delays. But the transition was totally seamless, and there were practically no reports of delays anywhere."
While delays have been few and far between, travelers who aren't accustomed to all the new rules and regulations will feel hassled on some level as their bags are more thoroughly searched. But by keeping in mind the following tips, even experienced travelers will find new ways to get through security faster.
What to Know When Packing Your Bags
Before you even get to the airport, what you put in your luggage will determine how closely you're searched, especially because TSA has the right to open your bag and search it, even if you're not there, if they think it contains explosives. For this reason, the TSA has asked all travelers not to lock their luggage, just in case they need to search it. They'll cut the lock on a bag they can't otherwise open.
Over the next few weeks, the TSA will be providing customers with red plastic security locks to replace the ones that come with suitcases and make their searches easier. "In the event we need to get into your bag, we can break the tab, look in it and clear the bag," said Heather Rosenker, a TSA spokeswoman. "We put a notice in the bag telling you that we opened it and provide you with a customer service number. Then we put on a different color tab. This way, you can be assured that we have handled your things with respect and security."
Such an invasion of privacy, even though understandable, can spook some travelers. This is why the TSA recommends that customers put their personal items into clear plastic bags. "Put in toiletries, hairbrushes, toothbrushes, shampoo, underwear, socks -- anything you don't want touched by a screener. This not only protects you but our screeners as well," said Rosenker.
Unfortunately, one reason why the TSA is having to hand-screen so many bags is that the CTX scanners the airports use to check for explosives aren't 100% accurate, and frequently ring up false positives. To a CTX machine, a block of cheese could be a block of the explosive C4, because both have similar densities.
To keep your bag from appearing suspicious to a CTX machine, be aware of what you're packing into checked luggage. In addition to cheese, food items like peanut butter and chocolate show up as suspect. Wrapped gifts and books also tend to raise red flags. If possible, leave gifts unwrapped and spread books around instead of stacking them.
And make sure that you put your undeveloped rolls of film in your carry-on bag instead of your suitcase, because the CTX scanners can erase them.
What to Know When Approaching Those Metal Detectors
As obvious as this sounds, metal detectors do exactly what the name would imply. Pack your loose change, watch and jewelry in your carry-on bag so you won't have to empty your pockets; limit the amount of metal you're wearing to the airport. Also be aware that some shoes, belts and even brassieres can set off the alarm. "I show up to the screeners with my shoes unlaced, so I'm ready to take them off," Elliott said.
Next, make sure all your electronic gizmos are stowed in your carry-on luggage and not your person, with the exception of your laptop. Because terrorists have fashioned bombs from laptops, they must be removed from their bags and placed through the X-ray machine separately. So if that computer isn't really essential, it might be worth leaving at home.
"There's no doubt that if you don't take radios, laptops, cameras and any other electronic devices, you make the lives of security people, and your life, that much easier," said Isaac Yeffet, former global security director for El Al.
Electronics aren't the only gear that can cause backups at security checkpoints. So can medical gear, such as syringes, and other essential carry-on items, such as children's gear. Fortunately, the TSA has spent millions of dollars training security agents to meet a wide array of customer needs, and they encourage you to talk with screeners. Alert them to your needs and they'll help you get through security without incident.
Ultimately, travelers would be wise to check the TSA's
Web site to see the list of items that are allowed in both carry-on and checked baggage. For the most part, the list is rather obvious. As Rosenker says, "pretty much anything sharp and pointy, or something you could hit someone with that's heavy."
Don't Fear the Screener
One reason why the TSA has been so effective at providing security without increasing delays is that it has the money to properly train its employees. With a budget exceeding $4 billion, the TSA's budget is greater than the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the customs department and the border patrol -- combined.
The TSA is so good at customer service that even Miss Manners herself, Judith Martin, approves of the job the agency is doing, devoting an entire Sunday column to noting their politeness and professionalism. Expect to hear a lot of "sirs" and "ma'ams" -- federal security personnel have been trained to work with you, not against you.
"We really balance customer service with security here," said Rosenker. "Our screeners are all taught customer service and have to abide by that philosophy, even in the way they communicate with customers."