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."
The new policies aren't always clear or consistent.
The following outlines carry-on items banned and permitted in U.S. airliners under security rules effective Tuesday.
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 agency also announced some immediate changes to the security-screening process.