Two-faced TSA ticks off air travelers: Here’s what you need to know

No wonder we’re so confused. The Transportation Security Administration is telling airlines one thing, and it’s telling us another.

“Passengers flying from international locations to U.S. destinations may notice additional security measures in place,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said in a prepared statement yesterday. “These measures are designed to be unpredictable, so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere. Due to the busy holiday travel season, both domestic and international travelers should allot extra time for check-in.”

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Meanwhile, the TSA has been busy ordering airlines to take specific actions (Emergency Amendment EA 1546-09-01, which I can’t confirm or deny that I have received from several sources). The interpretation of this order is certain to inconvenience travelers. Airlines have already turned off their in-flight entertainment systems, forced passengers to remain in their seats an hour before landing, taken away pillows and blankets and limited the use of electronic devices and in-flight wireless Internet connections.

Worse, TSA hasn’t said a word about these directives to the flying public, despite repeated requests for comment.

It’s as if TSA is operating in a parallel universe: In one, everything is just fine; in another, it’s having a kneejerk reaction not unlike the kind the government had after 9/11, when it federalized airport screeners. Based on some of the comments I’m getting from air travelers, I’d say no one is happy with this duplicitous behavior.

Here’s what we know so far:

The measures appear to be temporary. Several of the TSA security bulletins to the airlines that I’ve seen expire on Jan. 1, which suggests the agency is taking a wait-and-see approach to some of its new security measures. That makes a lot more sense than telling airlines to turn off the inflight entertainment systems until further notice.

They only affect international flights to the United States. None of the new security measures seem to affect domestic flights. Many air travelers report that the security lines are no longer than usual for flights within the country. So if you’re traveling domestically, there’s no need to worry about this.

They’re a work in progress. Late yesterday after I posted another update to this story, an airline insider suggested TSA had issued yet another security bulletin that rendered the previous security measures obsolete. Nothing is written in stone, in other words.

A lot of you have asked what I think about this. I’m disappointed that the TSA can’t be a little more up-front with the taxpayers it’s supposed to serve. I respect the fact that it’s trying to be unpredictable, as I’ve noted in a past column, but I’m left with the impression that it doesn’t have a clue about what to do.

In the meantime, what should you expect at the airport?

If you’re on an international flight coming to the U.S., get to the airport early and expect the unexpected. You’ll probably be asked to check in all of your carry-on bags (except for a purse, briefcase or laptop). Fortunately, some airlines are temporarily waiving their baggage fees. You’ll be subjected to extra screening and the cabin crew will be policing your behavior on board. You may not be able to use the in-flight entertainment systems, on-board wireless Internet or even open your laptop computer during the flight.

If you’re on a domestic flight, nothing changes. I just spoke with a traveler who said it’s business as usual, which is what air travelers were telling me yesterday. No additional screening. No laptop police. Nothing. Clearly, TSA is concerned with a threat from outside the United States.

Bear in mind that this could change at any moment. But for now, that’s where it stands.

(Photo: lamusa/Flickr Creative Commons)