Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Holiday Travel: TSA hopes 3-1-1 will keep lines moving

By John Helton

(CNN) -- Airline security officials want to get out the 411 about the 3-1-1 to keep airport traffic flowing smoothly over the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Transportation Security Administration banned liquids from carry-on baggage in August after an alleged terror plot using liquid explosives, was exposed. The TSA adjusted restrictions in September with a campaign called "3-1-1 for Carry-onsexternal link."

The "3" stands for the three-ounce limit for containers of liquid or gel; the first "1" stands for the one-quart, clear, zip-lock bags required to hold the containers; and the second "1" indicates one bag per passenger.

Wait times in security lines have increased 10 percent overall since the restrictions were put in place.

Going into the busy holiday season, the TSA said it is working with the entire travel industry to include the 3-1-1 message in communications with their customers.

About 25 million people are expected to fly between November 17 and November 28 -- that's about a 3 percent increase over last year.

Airline and government officials say they have done as much as they can to inform passengers. Now it's up to the passengers to keep the lines moving.

"Amazingly, a lot of people still have not gotten the word," said Chuck Cannon, public affairs director at Denver International Airport.

Cannon said he went through a security checkpoint recently and saw a passenger that he presumed to be a business traveler, "and he had his stick deodorant and shaving cream that he had to throw away and I thought to myself, 'Where have you been?' "

Judy Graham-Weaver, AirTran's public affairs manager, said that her biggest concern was that people who haven't flown since last Thanksgiving haven't paid much attention to the restrictions.

"I still hear people when I fly when I get on the rental car bus calling on their cell phones telling people, 'They took this from me and I didn't know you couldn't have that,' so I know there are a lot of people out there who still don't know what they're allowed to have."

TSA spokesman Christopher White said in an e-mail response that the majority of the agency's 43,000 security officers will be on duty over the weekend. The agency limits vacation during peak travel times and requests that officers work overtime, he wrote.

"What it comes down to is, if they get it right and familiarize themselves with the rules for carrying on liquids, we could have a very uneventful Thanksgiving," said Bob Parker, spokesman for Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. "And if they don't, we could have lines out into the garage. It really comes down to passenger behavior."

Parker said it was easier to deal with the outright ban on liquids put in place immediately following the exposure of the terror plot in August.

"Now there's the opportunity for discussion," he said. "I waited in line about five minutes behind a woman who didn't understand why she couldn't take her half-full 6-ounce tube of shampoo on the plane."

White estimated each physical inspection of a carry-on bag takes three minutes.

"Even if you add 10 seconds to each person, that adds up," Parker said.

About 30 percent more bags were checked in immediately after the ban went into effect in August, most airlines said. The rate fell to 15 to 20 percent after the 3-1-1 rules were put in place.

Parker also said the smaller bags being checked because of the restrictions are causing holdups because they are more likely than bigger bags to cover routing codes and cause bag jams.

Parker said he thinks the increase contributed to the rise in the number of mishandled baggage complaints, which almost doubled between September 2005 and September 2006.

The simple increase in total checked baggage can also slow down the system.

"The size of the door is the same," Parker said. "If it takes 20 to 30 percent longer to get the bags off the plane -- at peak time that could mean people waiting 30 to 45 minutes for their bags."

Airline officials say they have adapted to the security changes and are offering advice to their customers to help them through terminals -- most are distributing 1-quart bags to passengers who need them.

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