Air Officials Get Set for Travel Trial

This Thanksgiving poses one of the biggest recent tests to the nation's aviation system -- whether or not airport security lines will flow smoothly despite a record number of passengers and new security rules.

Many travelers and officials are nervously optimistic.

Some warn that a large number of inexperienced passengers facing unfamiliar carry-on restrictions will bring about fearsome backups.

The test comes at a crucial time for the struggling airline industry and the Transportation Security Administration.

Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel periods -- 25 million passengers are expected from Nov. 17-28 -- and starts the crucial holiday travel season. The TSA, an oft-criticized agency created after 9/11, could face heightened scrutiny when Democrats take control of Congress in January. It could also face criticism if lines are delayed.

The weekend's significance is underscored by an awareness campaign by the TSA, airlines and airports to highlight new restrictions on the amount of liquids, aerosols and gels passengers can carry on airplane cabins. News stories, posters, ads and e-mails have inundated travelers in virtually every major city and smaller areas from Eau Claire, Wis., to Midland, Texas.

David and Sherry Lautares got the message. David saw a TV news story Monday about security rules. Sherry got an e-mail from Delta Air Lines on the subject that day.

By the time the Lautareses and their daughter, Molly, 9, got to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International on Tuesday to fly to New York, they could recite the new security policy: "It's 3-1-1," David Lautares said. "Three ounces of liquid or gel, 1-quart bag and one bag per passenger in the security bin."

Lautares may be an exception. Stan Kotowski, a frequent flier from Princeton, N.J., saw "ungodly" lines two weeks ago at airports. Passengers didn't know about the liquid restrictions, or they didn't care.

"It's ignorance and arrogance," Kotowski said. "Some people had absolutely no clue."

That worries aviation consultant Michael Boyd. He fears a "lollapalooza" of security delays on what he calls "amateur" weekend when the ill-informed and impossible-to-educate amass at airports.

"You can't really make these people aware of it, no matter what you do," Boyd said. "It's just not going to get through."

Ben DeCosta disagrees. The Atlanta airport manager pointed to garbage bins by security checkpoints to prove the success of a publicity campaign featuring ads and banner-size airport posters. On Tuesday, the bins mostly held empty water bottles and innocuous trash.

When the restrictions took effect in late summer, 6-ounce toothpaste tubes and 4-ounce shampoo bottles filled the bins -- contraband taken from travelers unaware of the policy. Restrictions began after authorities said they foiled a plot in London to bomb U.S.-bound planes with liquid explosives.

"It's a campaign with the TSA to make the infrequent traveler, who's traveling a lot during the holiday period, aware of the rules," DeCosta said.

Aviation consultant Robert Mann said the TSA's campaign was "far more comprehensive" than in its previous security changes, such as when small scissors and tools were allowed in cabins last December.

At Los Angeles International Airport on Tuesday, lines were smooth. "It's moving pretty fast," Hawaii-bound Jamie Olivas said. "Last year, this year, they're about the same."

Contributing: Martin Kasindorf in Los Angeles