An airport security screener sat at a Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport checkpoint beside a plastic tub filled with small cans of shaving cream and tiny tubes of toothpaste.
Were they contraband items that ran afoul of safety rules?
"No, people didn't have quart-size plastic bags," the Transportation Security Administration official said.
Where's Seinfeld when you need him?
In a quintessential bureaucratic bedevilment, the TSA allows small bottles and tubes of liquids to be carried aboard airplanes only if they are enclosed in a quart-size, zip-top plastic bag. No gallon bags. No fold-over sandwich bags. Even if you have only one bottle on you, it must be carried in a quart-size, zip-top plastic bag. Screeners confiscate any nonconforming items or send travelers to ticket counters to check luggage.
That's just one of the frustrations travelers have found as TSA began implementing new rules on liquids last month and, in the eyes of some travelers, seemingly prohibited common sense.
TSA says the rules are the result of specific core security issues three-ounce bottles make it extremely difficult to handle and mix liquid explosives, and the one quart-size bag limits the total volume of liquids anyone can bring aboard a plane without too much slowdown at security lanes.
But the agency is reviewing how it has communicated rules to the public and to its own screeners, because of confusion on both sides of the X-ray machine. And now, almost six weeks into the new rules, the agency is now in a position to "give our screeners some discretion," said TSA chief Kip Hawley.
To travelers, some of the regulations are bewildering. You can buy a filled water bottle at an airport shop inside security, for example, but you can't carry your own empty water bottle through security and fill it at a water fountain inside security.
Hawley says there's a classified security reason for that related to the characteristics of liquid explosives. In addition, X-ray machines can detect containers, just not what's inside. So getting all containers out of carry-on bags speeds up security screening.
"As stupid as we may look, we didn't miss that one," Hawley said.
The previous total ban on liquids, imposed Aug. 10 after police in London uncovered a plot to blow up transatlantic passenger jets with liquid explosives, had upset travel significantly, hurting airlines as more customers opted to drive rather than fly for short trips. The volume of checked baggage jumped substantially, and trips took longer as hurried fliers waited at luggage carousels.
The Sept. 26 relaxation helped greatly, travelers say. Still, TSA has enforced some rules so strictly that actions have bordered on silliness, they claim, and have undermined sagging confidence in the efficacy of airport security.
Water bottles and shampoo containers aren't the only items scrutinized in today's environment.
Ann Hanson, a frequent flier from Ann Arbor, Mich., carries asthma inhalers with expensive medicines, and on two recent trips, screeners dropped the inhalers, which Hanson must put in her mouth when she uses them.
One screener "popped off that I shouldn't worry, the floor was clean enough to eat from," she said.
Either frustrated or confused by the new rules, or unable to squeeze all they need into a quart-size bag, passengers continue to check baggage at elevated rates, airlines say. And TSA is encouraging that for passengers who don't want to mess with quart zip-top bags.
American Airlines says that before the liquids ban, 1.1 bags were checked for every passenger. When the total liquids ban went into effect in August, the rate jumped to 1.3 bags per passenger. Now it's down to 1.2 bags per passenger. Frontier Airlines says baggage volume is about 33 percent higher than last year.
"There's still some confusion from people who don't travel every week about exactly what you can carry on, what you can't carry on, what you can buy behind security," Continental Airlines Chief Executive Larry Kellner said last week on a conference call, noting checked baggage volume is still up 28 percent at his airline.
One change Continental has made to try to help ease the hassle: The airline provides quart-size zip-top bags to customers at its ticket counters (but you have to ask). Southwest Airlines also said it provides quart-size plastic bags at its ticket counters, but American, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines Northwest Airlines, JetBlue Airways and Frontier said they don't.
Frequent traveler Harold Sogard has felt so sorry for travelers caught by TSA bag men that he has begun carrying extra quart-size bags himself to rescue people before items are confiscated. "Heaven forbid that the TSA actually kept a supply of bags on hand to give to people," he said.
Earlier this month, Ann Persoon tried to board a flight in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with "unmarked" bottles of shampoo and cream rinse.
Her favorite brands didn't come in sizes of three ounces or less, so she made a special trip to a store to buy small, leak-proof clear travel bottles and filled them with hair-care products.
The screener incorrectly told her the rules allowed only bottles with manufacturer's labels on them, and he promptly threw them out. "Most travelers want to cooperate with airport security, because they realize that their own safety depends on the TSA officers being vigilant. But sometimes it gets very frustrating," said Persoon.
TSA's Hawley said that's the kind of mistake TSA is trying to address.
Steve Feld had a squeezed-down, nearly empty tube of toothpaste that clearly had less then three ounces in it, though it held more when it was new. He also had a used tube of lotion that "once held fractionally over 3.0 ounces," he said. A TSA screener grabbed them both.
"I was told the rules prohibited it, and he tossed the items without any discussion," Feld said.
Hawley said there is method in the madness of requiring everything to be in a bag and strictly limiting the size of containers, not the volume of liquid or gel.
Containers larger than three ounces could pose a threat a place to mix enough liquid explosives to create a bomb. "It's not the ounces. It's the container we're after," he said.
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