ATLANTA -- Many air travelers have been slow to catch on to the new rules of flying, and government and airline officials fear the confusion could snarl security lines at some of the USA's busiest airports Thanksgiving week.
At major airports such as Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson, Washington Dulles, Las Vegas and others, many passengers arrive unaware of rules that have restricted what may be carried aboard a flight since the uncovering in London last August of an alleged terrorist bombing plot.
Despite strict rules barring large containers of liquids in carry-on bags, passengers are showing up with big containers of shampoo, toothpaste, aftershave, water, even liquor. Such errors force security screeners to instruct passengers, remove the banned items and make time-consuming hand searches of bags. The result: slower lines.
If the Atlanta airport -- the USA's busiest -- is any sign, it could be a tough season when the volume of travelers soars later this month for Thanksgiving. Willie Williams, federal security director at Hartsfield-Jackson, says screening there is running as much as 30% slower than before the liquids ban.
Jack Smith, AirTran Airways' customer service chief, says the discount carrier is worried about the screening slowdown not only at its Atlanta hub but across its system.
"We're concerned, and we're doing everything we can to educate the customer," Smith says.
Airline officials say lines have increased at almost every sizable airport. But at certain airports, high volumes of less-experienced leisure travelers, combined with the physical layout, give rise to extraordinary problems. At the worst times at Hartsfield-Jackson -- early morning on Monday and Saturday -- security lines can snake back from the checkpoints through the terminal's atrium, down the hallways to the rapid transit station and back up the hallway to the luggage carousels.
Wait times on Columbus Day, a Monday, ran well over an hour after bad weather the day before forced AirTran and Delta Air Lines, the biggest carrier at Atlanta, to rebook some passengers. It wasn't that bad early last Saturday. Lines were long, but they moved relatively quickly. The longest wait to get through the checkpoint ran 19 minutes at 8 a.m.
Several travelers grumbled that they didn't know or forgot about the liquids restriction until the security agents reminded them at the start of the lines.
"I thought the ban was over," says Shane Hoff, a sales manager in Atlanta who had to throw away his shaving cream and deodorant in a large trash bin next to the agents' desks.
"I'm traveling with my wife's family. I'm going to smell all weekend," he said. "But it's not the end of the world."
Recent Mondays have also been tough.
"Atlanta Hartsfield on Monday morning looks like Disney World during spring break," says Atlanta-based business traveler Pat Everett, a hospital consultant.
Everett won't be traveling over the holidays. "I can't imagine what it's going to be like."
The holidays tend to see more infrequent fliers more likely to be unfamiliar with the rules. Airline officials worry that long security lines around Thanksgiving could cause passengers to miss their flights at a time when planes are too full to accommodate travelers left behind.
Officials also worry that bad experiences by passengers, and publicity about long airport waits at the holidays, will discourage some people from flying in the future.
"We're concerned about the next 30 days or so," says Christopher White, spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, which runs airport checkpoints nationwide. "We have all hands on deck."
In October, several big airports were showing much longer wait times than in July, before the liquids ban, according to TSA figures. But even the biggest crowds in October don't come close to what airports are bracing for at Thanksgiving. Fully 50% more passengers surge to the airport on the day before Thanksgiving than on a typical Wednesday. The Sunday after Thanksgiving sees 15% more passengers than a typical Sunday.
'They won't have a clue'
The growing lines have prompted the TSA to launch a national public education campaign in the media, on its website () and at airports to help passengers obey the liquids rules.
Major airports such as Atlanta and Las Vegas McCarran are waging their own education campaigns with press conferences, videos shown in area hotels and staff inside the airport telling passengers what they can take aboard.
Despite the outreach, says Randy Walker, director of Las Vegas McCarran, "I think this holiday season will be problematic." Airports nationally "will be getting a lot of people who haven't traveled since all this happened, and they won't have a clue."
At Las Vegas airport last week, passenger Tracy Parks was surprised by the plastic bag rule.
"I just don't understand the baggie," said Parks, a therapist from Kansas City, Mo. He and his friend, Brian Thompson, were stopped from carrying bottled water and cologne in their carry-on bags, and had to check them.
"Now that I know about the baggie, I will use the baggie," Parks said.
Walker says a passenger recently showed up at a checkpoint there carrying a bottle of whiskey. He told the screeners it was exempt from the rules, and insisted the screeners just wanted it for themselves. Eventually, the man relinquished it.
In New Orleans, TSA says, a passenger arrived at a checkpoint with a pint-size bottle of hot sauce. In Atlanta, a woman showed up with so many little bottles of liquor that they wouldn't all fit inside a one-quart zip-top bag.
When the screeners told her she couldn't take them all through the checkpoint, she drank three of the bottles and took the rest aboard.
According to the TSA, passengers are still showing up at checkpoints with full-size containers of toiletries inside their carry-on luggage. Other passengers don't have their little toiletries inside a zip-top bag, or they have a bag that's much bigger than a quart.
Still others are failing to remove the bag containing the toiletries from their carry-ons before X-ray screening. That forces the screeners to hand check the bag on the other side of the X-ray, slowing down the line.
Passengers "are doing it innocently," says Williams, the Atlanta security official. "They're not trying to sneak something through."
Large bottles of liquids, no matter how costly or important to the traveler, must be discarded before the checkpoint -- or the suitcase must be checked.
The evolution of the liquid ban
The liquids crisis began Aug. 10. British authorities arrested more than 20 men in London believed to be plotting to blow up U.S.-bound trans-Atlantic jets using liquid explosives taken onto planes in carry-on luggage.
The TSA and its counterpart in Britain abruptly banned all liquids and gels from carry-ons. Only baby formula and prescription medicines were exempt.
The ban initially gridlocked airports and forced most passengers to check their luggage, because liquids were still allowed in checked luggage. The resulting surge in checked luggage overwhelmed some luggage systems, contributing to a 26% year-over-year spike in the rate of complaints about mishandled luggage in August.
Responding to appeals from airlines and business traveler groups, the TSA on Sept. 25 revised the rules to allow small quantities of toiletries through checkpoints. Now, passengers may bring typical travel items such as shampoo, toothpaste and makeup through security checkpoints, provided they're in 3-ounce or smaller containers that all fit inside a 1-quart clear plastic zip-top bag. Only one bag per passenger is allowed. TSA calls this the 3-1-1 rule. Most drugstores stock popular toiletries in small travel sizes.
A zip-top bag containing the toiletries must be removed from a carry-on suitcase and placed in a separate tray prior to screening.
Airport stores in Atlanta, Dallas/Fort Worth and elsewhere are selling zip-top plastic bags for 50 cents apiece. Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., is more generous: It's giving away 6,000 bags this season.
TSA officials say tests by the FBI found it's highly unlikely that terrorists could destroy a jet with a bomb made from such small amounts of fluids.
Passengers are also allowed to carry on water and toiletries in any quantity bought at airport shops beyond security checkpoints, including liquor and perfume bought at duty-free shops. Liquids are screened before being sold in secure airport areas.
Although the Atlanta airport is fully staffed, security lines have grown just as TSA at many airports is battling chronically high turnover rates among screeners. Despite a retention bonus program offered by the TSA, one in five security screeners left his or her job during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. That has caused staffing problems at some airports, and some screeners are new and inexperienced.
Business traveler Everett says a screener at Hartsfield recently forced him to give up an unmarked, 3-ounce plastic bottle containing his favorite aftershave, Old Spice. She told him the bottle had to have a manufacturer's label. Although that's not correct, Everett had to throw it out.
After that, Everett bought a travel-size container of mouthwash, poured out the mouthwash, and -- at the risk of smelling minty -- poured in Old Spice. "It sails through the checkpoint," he says.
TSA is pulling out all the stops to keep lines moving over the holidays. Williams says the Atlanta airport is fully staffed with screeners and will have all 22 checkpoint lanes open Thanksgiving week.
Twenty-two uniformed airport employees trained by TSA will be telling passengers what they can and cannot bring aboard before they get to the checkpoint. Sixteen-foot-long signs bearing the TSA's 3-1-1 rule are hanging in the terminal. Brochures are at curbside.
"I think that, over time, people will get it," says Williams, who has been Hartsfield's security director for five years.
Travelers really have no choice. "These regulations are not going away anytime soon," he says.
Contributing: Roger Yu from Atlanta; Chris Woodyard from Las Vegas.
What you can carry on a plane
The TSA's 3-1-1 rule:
3-ounce or smaller containers of items such as shampoo, toothpaste and makeup
1-quart clear plastic zip-top bag Waiting longer
Average top wait times for security checkpoints have increased at many airports since the liquids ban in August. Some of the longest peak wait times (in minutes):
Airport July October
Nashville 11 32
John Wayne, Orange County18 26
Washington Dulles 12 25
Las Vegas 15 24
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta 18 23
Chicago O'Hare 11 21
Philadelphia 13 20
Source: Transportation Security Administration