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The new security crunch

Needless to say, just about every traveler is currently focused on Thursday’s news of an alleged plot to bomb transatlantic flights. As a result, security hassles, cancellations, and delays will certainly get worse. Even after the chaos of the first week gets straightened out—more or less—questions will remain for weeks and even months.

One reader asked me, “I’m scheduled on a flight to London in two weeks. Should I go or cancel?” Clearly, that’s an individual decision for each traveler. And although it’s far too early to determine which effects are temporary and which will last, we can point out a few conclusions.

Short-term chaos

Flights to/from the U.K. are likely to remain disrupted for about a week. If you can postpone your trip a week or two, you’ll probably enjoy a smoother experience.

If you stick to plans for an immediate departure, expect heavy security lines and a certain amount of confusion about what you can and can’t do. For now, British security seems to be more restrictive than U.S. security; don’t assume that items you’re allowed to take onboard flying to the U.K. will be OK when you return.

The major transatlantic lines have also been inconsistent about rebooking nonrefundable tickets. Some allow no-fee changes, but usually with a tight time window; some allow you to rebook at the same fares, but others say you have to pay whatever fare applies to your new flight; some allow you to travel to/from airports other than the one originally scheduled; others don’t. Moreover, you can expect some tweaking of those policies in response to competitive pressures. The bottom line: If you need or want to change a flight, call your airline or travel agent and determine the current policies that apply to your ticket.

Tighter screening

Airlines are generally urging you to arrive at your airport even earlier than before. Delta asked all its travelers to arrive three hours before departure; other lines have said two hours domestic, three international. And your chances of being hand-searched are much greater than before.

New carry-on rules

You can expect some permanent tightening of rules for carry-on baggage. Prohibitions against liquids, gels of various sorts, and aerosol cans will likely remain in force indefinitely. The net result is that, for most travelers, typical toilet kits will now have to go into checked baggage.

Current reports also indicate you can’t put bottled drinks in your carry-on bags, even drinks you buy in an airport’s secure departure area. If you or a traveling companion has any special onboard needs, check with your airline for its current policies.

What will still be OK? Presumably, documents, medicines, reading materials, and camera/electronic stuff that is almost sure to be stolen if you put it in checked baggage.

Longer-term changes

We’ll probably see some additional long-term changes in travel patterns. Here are two that come to mind immediately; we’ll discuss others as they arise.

  • Road warriors. Lots of today’s typical business travelers never check bags: Instead, they stuff what they need into a good-size roll-on suitcase plus a big briefcase and stash both in the overhead bin. Stricter limitations on carry-on items will undoubtedly force many of those travelers into checking bags.
  • Trusted Traveler. Increased security will undoubtedly provide additional impetus to the programs to pre-screen travelers and allow them expedited security processing.
  • Pre-shipped baggage. The several companies that specialize in shipping baggage ahead will undoubtedly enjoy a business boost. However, the high costs of those services will limit their use largely to business travelers on expense accounts and very upscale leisure travelers: Ordinary folks will have to live with tighter baggage rules.
  • Hotel amenities. Most upscale hotels already provide mini-bottles of shampoo, conditioner, aftershave, and other glops that travelers carry in their kits. Presumably, some hotel chains will add shaving foam, toothpaste, and whatever else they think travelers need so they can promote “just bring your toothbrush and razor—we’ll provide the rest.”
  • Drive, don’t fly. With getting to the airport three hours in advance, more security hassles, and checking bags you used to carry on, the air-drive balance has shifted once again toward driving. Even with $3 gasoline, driving may well be a better choice for any trip under 500 miles or so.

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