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TSA Figures If Passengers Are Confused, So Are Terrorists

MICHAEL TARM   12/28/09 09:25 PM ET   AP

Airliner Attack

CHICAGO — You are now free to move about the cabin. Or not. After a two-day security clampdown prompted by a thwarted attempt to bomb a jetliner, some airline officials told The Associated Press that the in-flight restrictions had been eased. And it was now up to captains on each flight to decide whether passengers can have blankets and other items on their laps or can move around during the final phase of flight.

Confused? So were scores of passengers who flew Monday on one of the busiest travel days of the year. On some flights, passengers were told to keep their hands visible and not to listen to iPods. Even babies were frisked. But on other planes, security appeared no tighter than usual.

The Transportation Security Administration did little to explain the rules. And that inconsistency might well have been deliberate: What's confusing to passengers is also confusing to potential terrorists.

"It keeps them guessing," transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman said.

By not making public a point-by-point list of new security rules, federal officials also retain more flexibility, the DePaul University professor added, enabling them to target responses to certain airports or flights seen as more vulnerable.

"There was criticism after 9-11 that rules could be way too cookbook – not allowing authorities to adapt them to different settings, to different airports," Schwieterman said.

If the objective was to befuddle, then on Monday it was mission accomplished.

On one Air Canada flight from Toronto to New York's LaGuardia Airport, crew members told passengers before departure that they were not allowed to use any electronic devices – even iPods – and would not be able to access their personal belongings during the one-hour flight.

The questions came as President Barack Obama ordered a review of air-safety regulations. TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne declined to offer details other than to say the agency would "continually review and update these measures to ensure the highest level of security."

An hour before a US Air flight from Manchester, England, to Philadelphia landed, flight attendants removed passengers' blankets and told them to keep their "hands visible," said passenger Walt Swanson of Cumbria, England.

Even bathroom visits were affected on some flights.

On Continental Flight 1788 from Cancun, Mexico, to Newark, three airport security agents frisked everyone at the gate, including babies, prompting one to scream loudly in protest. On the plane, crew announced that the toilets would be shut down the last hour of the flight and passengers would not be able eat, drink, or use electronic devices.

The warning that the bathrooms would be shut down led to lines 10 people deep at each lavatory. A demand by one attendant that no one could read anything either elicited gasps of disbelief and howls of laughter.

In-cabin screens normally showing the plane's location and flight path were switched off on an Air France flight Saturday from San Francisco to Paris. Flight attendants said they were turned off as a security measure.

One of the Transportation Security Administration restrictions that most annoyed the airlines was an order to shut off in-flight entertainment systems on international flights. Airlines objected, and on Sunday night, the TSA apparently relented and left it to the discretion of airline crews to decide whether to turn off the systems.

"It was a hardship on our customers," said Mateo Lleras, a spokesman for JetBlue Airways, which touts its seatback entertainment systems and operates international flights to the Caribbean, Mexico and Costa Rica. "We're not in a position to challenge the TSA security directives, and we do the best we can to comply."

The TSA also relaxed rules that had prohibited passengers from leaving their seats, opening carry-on bags and keeping blankets or babies on their laps during the last hour of international flights entering the U.S., according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the TSA had not publicly disclosed the change.

Crews were given the authority to impose restrictions for shorter periods or not at all, said the official.

Holiday traveler Sharen Rayburn, of Trion, Ga., said it took two hours to get through security in Denver because guards were checking every bag multiple times.

"You're a little more apprehensive to fly. You kind of pay attention to everybody," she said after landing at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.

At Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Monday morning, every U.S.-bound passenger was subjected to a pat-down and luggage was inspected by hand. It took about three hours to get through the checks, with some information boards citing the security measures for several delays and cancelations.

Elsewhere, especially on domestic flights, passengers said they had not detected security upgrades.

"I honestly didn't notice a difference, and we didn't receive any special instructions from the crew," said James Merling, a 68-year-old doctor who flew from Marquette, Mich., to Boston's Logan International Airport on Monday.

Lexi Wirthlin, 22, who arrived at Philadelphia International Airport on Monday from St. Louis, Mo., said she was warned by friends to expect long lines at airport screening points or other hassles onboard.

"I was expecting it to be intense," she said. "But it was totally fine."

But just because authorities imposed and then pulled back on in-flight rules in the last couple of days does not mean they will never be reinstated.

Schwieterman said new safety procedures have a tendency to become permanent, citing how attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid's attack in 2001 ushered in footwear checks.

"I would say it is hard to imagine going back to a more lax security process given the persistence of these attempts," he said. "This is now a part of everyday life."

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Associated Press writers Mark Pratt in Boston, David Koenig in Dallas, Dorie Turner in Atlanta, Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia, Adam Goldman in New York City, John Heilprin and Rob Gillies in Toronto, and Sheila Norman-Culp in London also contributed to this report.

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