Two new government initiatives aimed at airline travelers -- one focusing on terror, the other on infectious disease -- have sparked an outcry of concern from many frequent fliers who fear the new rules will lead to increased confusion, frustration and even privacy issues.
Last week, as the Transportation Security Administration announced that travelers could once again fly with their small scissors and screwdrivers, the government agency said travelers would also be subject to random secondary searches again. These include expanded pat-downs, such as those conducted in the early days following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. In fact, travelers -- along with their carry-on bags -- may be pulled aside for secondary screenings even if they successfully pass through an airport's metal detectors.
Some travelers could also be subject to additional screening based on the way they look. Airport screeners have been trained to look for passengers with such "suspicious" characteristics as shifting eyes and sweating. Even the way they are dressed may single them out. And travelers unlucky enough to be next in line through a metal detector may be pulled aside, as well. It's part of the TSA's efforts to decrease the predictability of airport security.
Just a week before the TSA's changes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced plans to collect detailed airline traveler information, such as e-mail addresses and even the names of travel companions. The CDC is attempting to maintain a passenger database so federal health officials can warn travelers of potential outbreaks of communicable diseases.
Several frequent fliers said they were concerned about the impact of the new rules and regulations.
Henri Manasse, head of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists, said he is most concerned about the new airport security measures. Manasse, who flies at least once a week and logs about 140,000 miles a year, said the new security plans -- which go into effect Dec. 22 -- could cause long lines and leave many frequent fliers frustrated and confused.
"My fear with random searches is that the searches become very inconsistent and nonsensical," Manasse said. "After September 11, they were a massive hassle and an unjustified intrusion."
Many frequent fliers would like to pass through security without secondary screening. Security has become one of the biggest deterrents for increased traveling, travelers say. To avoid security hassles, a growing number of frequent fliers has begun taking Amtrak or driving on shorter trips.
Penn State University recruiter Evelynn Ellis said she is most concerned about the TSA's plan to identify travelers for additional screening based -- in part -- on a passenger's attire.
"What a riot: I can take my little scissors now, but I'm searched because I am dressed weird that day," she said. "I don't think any of this will make us a bit safer." Dress that is inappropriate for the season -- such as a heavy coat in summer -- is likely to draw TSA inspection, the agency said.
TSA officials say they have tested the new procedures and found "very little impact" on wait times.
"This will not cause confusion for the traveling public," Kip Hawley, assistant secretary for the TSA, said in a news conference last week. "This is going to be very easy for the customer arriving at the checkpoint to figure what they're supposed to do. We'll make that very, very clear."
(Yesterday, the Senate Commerce Committee said it would hold hearings on the new TSA rules on Dec. 12.)
While the airport security changes are more imminent, the CDC database is at least two years away. The CDC has begun a public comment period during which travelers can submit their opinions on the proposal before a decision is made to enact it. Travelers can submit their opinions through the end of January through the Federal Register at www.regulations.gov or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The CDC's goal, says Ram Koppaka, associate director for policy and preparedness, is to quickly identify and contact travelers who may have flown to infected areas of the globe or been exposed to travelers with infectious diseases. The procedures would include airline passengers flying internationally as well those who fly through one of 67 hub airports within the United States. The CDC said it decided to step up its efforts after trying to contact travelers who may have been exposed to the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in late 2002 and early 2003.
The CDC is requiring airlines to collect passengers' home addresses, emergency contact information and phone numbers, as well as information on traveling companions.
Airline industry executives say securing the passenger information while maintaining traveler privacy is a major undertaking and may even require some airlines to update their reservation systems, an investment that many airlines may have difficulty affording.
"We're trying to reduce the burden on both the airlines and our passengers," said Katherine Andrus, assistant general council for the Air Transport Association. "We're going to be working with the CDC to try and find a way to achieve its public health goals in the most cost-effective way possible."
In addition to the database, the CDC plans to aggressively rely on airline and airport employees to identify passengers who show signs of infectious diseases, such as excessive coughing, sweating, bleeding and skin discoloration. That employee could detain passengers and notify a local CDC official, who could bar the travelers from flying and have them quarantined until tests are taken.
The idea of aggressive monitoring worries even some of the savviest travelers.
"So not only will the government know who I'm traveling with, they'll be able to determine whether I can fly because my nose won't stop running because of a sinus infection. That's a little much," says Chicago Web site designer J. Lynn Cusic.
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