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.
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.
The rules replace an outright ban on liquids, lotions and gels ordered Aug. 10 after an alleged plot to bomb U.S.-bound jetliners was foiled.