For frequent business travelers and footloose vacationers, the carry-on bag is more than luggage. It's a symbol, a mind-set, a way of life.
And since Thursday, when U.S. and British authorities clamped down on airport security after a suspected terrorist plot to blow up trans-Atlantic jets using liquid explosives was revealed, these unfettered fliers have been in a tailspin.
Dave Moya, an executive from Oldsmar, Fla., travels every week and hadn't checked a bag in 10 years -- until Thursday. The U.S. ban on liquids in carry-ons imposed that day meant "I had the choice of throwing away cologne, hair gel, toothpaste, after-shave lotion, hand cream ... shampoo." He bit the bullet, and instead of getting home 45 minutes after touchdown, he wound up spending 45 minutes in baggage claim.
Samantha Johnston, 44, a Portland, Ore., grad student and moderator on the popular FlyerTalk .com message board, says the latest -- and constantly shifting -- carry-on rules have sparked the biggest response since the chaotic aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. Johnston is the type of traveler who will fly to Singapore for the weekend or to Munich for breakfast with a friend. (She has done both, with a single carry-on.)
"I've put up with public inspection for the underwire in my bra, and when I protested, being told to wear a bulky sweater and go braless in the future. I've been told I can't carry on a bottle of wine as a gift at one airport, only to find it's no problem at another. I've been civil with the multiple checks of my boarding pass not more than a few feet apart. I figured this all couldn't possibly last and flying would eventually return to normal," she says.
But now, with strict carry-on regulations that currently ban everything from hair spray to yogurt, "I've reached my tipping point. I've decided not to fly until the latest Draconian carry-on prohibitions are significantly rolled back. Security has finally reached the nether regions on the idiocy graph."
Or the confusion graph, anyway.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) loosened up carry-on rules Sunday by permitting up to 4ounces of liquid non-prescription medicine such as saline solution and eye drops. But at the same time, its website still listed them as prohibited.
After Britain eased its terror threat level Monday from critical to severe, security officials there said that starting today, passengers could carry a single, briefcase-sized bag aboard and that books, laptop computers and iPods again would be allowed.
On Sunday, Canada tightened carry-on restrictions, adding aerosols and juice to the list of banned items put in place last week.
It's enough to make a frazzled flier take a drink -- though not, perhaps, of duty-free booze.
Since the TSA ban on carry-on fluids applies to all flights entering or leaving the USA, duty-free sales have slumped from Singapore to the Cayman Islands. The Nuance Group, which runs duty-free shops in most Canadian airports, says sales are down almost 75%.
But TSA spokesman Christopher White said Monday that under revised TSA rules, travelers can still buy duty-free liquid items at the airport, as long as they are delivered to the plane and not carried aboard by passengers. One wrinkle: Travelers doing that, arriving at a U.S. airport from another country and taking a connecting flight, must clear customs, where newly purchased duty-free liquids have to be placed in checked luggage or left behind.
Meanwhile, in a Newsweek poll conducted last week, 54% of 1,001 U.S. respondents opposed banning all carry-on baggage on commercial flights, but 26% say they "definitely favor" such a move, and 18% say they would "probably favor" it.
Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff hit the TV talk-show circuit Sunday, saying he didn't expect greater restrictions: "We can do the job with screening, training and technology without banning all carry-ons."
A 40-minute wait for bags
That's cold comfort to travelers such as Paul DaSilva, a Los Angeles engineer who flies more than 100,000 miles a year.
"I'll adjust temporarily by checking in my bag," says DaSilva, who did just that this weekend. But Sunday's "40-minute wait to get back my bag in Toronto was excessive, and needing to get to the airport an extra 30 minutes before to make sure I can get my bag checked in time will take its toll.
"It's a touchy subject to folks like myself, and I can guarantee a drop-off in travel if more restrictions are enforced," he says.
The airlines say they're checking more bags but don't yet have definitive numbers, says David Castelveter of the Air Transport Association. The TSA uses a number of different screening systems and doesn't have exact figures on any increase in bag volume.
Southwest beefed up staffing on the ramp to handle extra bags, but "things seemed to smooth out this week," says spokeswoman Beth Harbin. Joseph Tiberi of the International Association of Machinists -- the union that represents baggage handlers at United, Northwest and US Airways -- says workers are seeing slight increases in baggage since the initial flood Thursday and Friday. Some workers are being reassigned to airports to meet higher demand, but they're not being asked to work overtime, he says.
At American, the world's largest airline, spokesman Tim Smith says there was a short-lived surge in checked baggage last week but that the situation was "pretty much back to normal by Monday." At Chicago's Midway Airport, carriers have seen a 30% increase in checked bags, airport spokeswoman Wendy Abrams says.
Even before the recent spike in checked bags, many frequent fliers considered waiting at the baggage carousel a modern version of Dante's Inferno. Among their concerns: Though the numbers are better this year, Consumer Reports says passengers filed an average of 10,000 mishandled-luggage complaints a day against the larger U.S. airlines in 2005, the worst performance since 1990.
Rich Fiorenza, an expert on bag handling at SITA, a Switzerland-based technology and consulting company, says the hard data won't be available for at least a month. But after seeing unusually long lines at the baggage claim when he flew back to Atlanta from vacation over the weekend, he expects to see a rise in the rate of mishandled bags in August and September. That, he said, would be the expected result of airlines handling more checked bags compared with last year.
'Not going to check any luggage'
Amid the turmoil caused by the new restrictions, some carry-on devotees simply refuse to surrender their bags and are developing new strategies.
"I'm still not going to check any luggage," says Chris Kepler, business director of SAS Institute in Cary, N.C. "I've decided to contact the hotel ahead of time and ask them for toothpaste, deodorant, etc. So even if I have to pay for these items upon arrival, it's worth it to me to not have to check a bag."
On Thursday, Manhattan publicist Pamela Johnston refused to check her roll-aboard at the Burbank, Calif., airport. "I wanted to be mobile," she says. "I didn't want to check my bag. I knew the airports would be a mess."
So she took her toiletry bag filled with "a couple hundred dollars" of stuff and FedExed it home.
Others have greeted the new carry-on era with resigned acceptance. "It's hard to predict how all this will shake out, as so little of it is based on common sense. (But) it won't be long before the rules are relaxed," says Doug Dyment, who publishes OneBag.com, a website on the joys of traveling light. "Not that long ago they were destroying nail clippers, and there was never any rational reason for that."
Meanwhile, on road warrior Moya's flight Thursday, the "overhead (compartment) in first class was pretty much empty" save for briefcases and laptops. It's usually jammed, he says.
On her flight from New York's La Guardia to Minneapolis Monday morning, flight attendant Rene Foss noticed little change in the number of carry-ons. Which is a bad thing, from her perspective. "The carry-on baggage issue, aside from anything that happened last week, is so problematic. Any reduction in carry-on luggage is great. And I think my colleagues would agree."
Foss, author of Around the World in a Bad Mood, was clutching a Starbucks coffee and a carry-on with her makeup and toiletries stowed inside as she prepared to board a flight to Portland, Ore. Flight crews are exempt from the new TSA restrictions. "If you're on a five-day trip, you can't keep throwing out toothpaste at every stop. I think the TSA took pity on us," Foss says.
"It's not a 'right' to fly and carry whatever you like," notes David Gregory, a Dallas-based travel coordinator and former airline employee, in one of nearly 200 posts in response to a recent item on USA TODAY.com's Today in the Sky blog about the threat to the carry-on culture.
"Just think how wonderfully blissful it would be not to have a single carry-on aboard a plane," Gregory adds.
"I say ban all carry-on luggage. It's about time! And if you are so important that you cannot be away from your computer for a day, do us all a favor and stay at your office."
Contributing: Jayne Clark, Barbara DeLollis, Dan Reed and Kitty Bean Yancey What is allowed and what isn't
Rules on what is permitted on and banned from U.S. flights have been revised by the Transportation Security Administration:
Personal items permitted
Baby formula and breast milk if a baby is traveling
Solid lipsticks and Chapsticks
Prescription medicines with a name that matches the
Up to 8 oz. of liquid or gel low-
blood sugar treatment
Up to 4 oz. of non-prescription
liquid medications, including cough syrup, eye drops, contact lens solutions and nasal spray
Laptop computers, cell phones, pagers, handheld devices and cameras.
Personal items banned
All creams and lotions, including sunscreens, first-aids creams such as Neosporin, moisturizers, hand lotions.
Baby teethers with gel or liquid
Bubble bath, including gel or
liquid-filled bath balls or bath oils and moisturizers
Children's toys with gel inside
Gel cap pills
Gel shoe inserts
Hair styling gels
Hair sprays of all kinds
Hair straighteners or detanglers
Lip gels, glosses or liquids,
Makeup remover or face cleanser
Nail polish and removers
Perfumes or colognes
Food and drinks banned
Gel-based sports supplements
Yogurts or gel-like substances
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