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Monday 28 December, 2009

Good afternoon

Here's a second update on the changes to security procedures subsequent to what some people are now referring to as the crotch-bomber and his failed attempt to blow up a NW A330 from AMS to DTW on Christmas day.

This email is primarily to tell you what to expect over the next few days; I'll be providing more extensive analysis and commentary on what went wrong and why with my regular newsletter on Friday.

Firstly, many thanks to everyone who has written in, variously with reports on their flight/security experiences and/or with pithy comments and expressions of frustration.  All have been read, but not all have been replied to.

Your reports on actual security/flying experiences are and continue to be very helpful - please keep them coming.

The good news - it seems that the new security procedures apply only to international flights coming in to the US from foreign points of origin.  This also includes Canada.

The illogic of this decision is staggering.  Does this mean our security lords and masters are sublimely confident there are no terrorists currently resident in the US?  If they are so confident about this, why not abandon all security screening for flights within the US?

On the other hand, if there is a valid need for security screening on domestic flights and on international flights departing from the US (and, alas, there absolutely is) why are our authorities leaving the huge gaps in the current security screening procedures unresolved on domestic flights?

Plus, even though the TSA's latest and semi-secret security directive (reproduced in its entirety below) applies only to international flights coming in to the US, some of you have written in to advise of similar restrictions being encountered on flights within the US (particularly flights involving New York and Washington DC).  Most of you are advising that domestic flights and the security lines for them are pretty much unchanged, but some of you are having different experiences.

Unfortunately the TSA's 'wait time calculator' that gives some information about the length of security line queues at airports is currently offline so it is not easy to know what type of impacts are being experienced with domestic flights and outbound international flights.

The bad news - the new security procedures for incoming international flights are draconian and ridiculous, while not necessarily guaranteeing our safety, even though they surely guarantee to make flying inconvenient and unpleasant.  Expect extra delay to get through security when traveling to the US, and due to the massive operational disruptions, there's even a possibility your flight may be totally cancelled.

If you are flying back to the US on a multiple leg journey - for example, maybe you are flying first from Prague to Paris, and then from Paris to New York, there may be some extra delays when checking in at Prague, but most of your delay will occur in Paris.

Now here is a very important suggestion - how much connecting time is allowed between your two flights?  If you were previously expecting a tight connection, there's a possibility that the extra security delays might cause you to miss your flight on to the US (although there's also a possibility that the flight might be delayed, because you'll for sure not be the only person in such a situation).

Recommendations (if you're on an international flight inbound to the US) :

1.  Check the status of your flight prior to going to the airport in case it is cancelled.

2.  Allow at least an extra hour to go through security.

3.  If you are connecting en route back to the US, consider changing your flights to allow for a longer connect time.  Ask the airline to waive change fees in view of this special change in circumstance.  Any airline with any sense (do such airlines exist?) would prefer to have you on a realistic schedule than to have to make emergency arrangements for you after you miss your flight.

What the new restrictions comprise

On 25 December, the TSA issued an 'Emergency Amendment' (EA) setting in place new security measures applicable to airlines flying in to the US.  This only applies until 2am Greenwich Mean Time on 30 December 2009; and at this stage, no-one seems to have any idea what to expect at 2.01am and into the future.  Will everything return to normal?  Will the emergency regulations become permanent?  Or something else?

Key measures in the EA comprise pat-down searches of all passengers in the gate area prior to boarding, and physical searching of all carry-ons (in addition to the earlier security procedures when entering the secure part of the airport).

Note that these new pat down searches are concentrated only on the upper legs and torso, ignoring the apparent region where the crotch-bomber secreted his 'bomb', and also ignoring the other prime area for secreting bombs - a woman's breast area.

If you'd like to see how easy it is to hide things on one's person and how readily available devices are to help anyone do this, reader Peter writes in to report

Apparently there are two ways to smuggle liquids into restricted zones such as some football games, or cruise liners.  The "Beer Belly" for guys - abdomen strap-on holding up to 80 oz, and the "Wine Rack" for gals, the inflatable bra holding up to two pints.

You can see the products on their website.

And then, once on the flight, there are five new security measures :

1.     Passengers must remain in seats beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination.   
2.     Passenger access to carry-on baggage is prohibited beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination.   
3.     Disable aircraft-integrated passenger communications systems and services (phone, internet access services, live television programming, global positioning systems) prior to boarding and during all phases of flight.   
4.     While over U.S. airspace, flight crew may not make any announcement to passengers concerning flight path or position over cities or landmarks.   
5.     Passengers may not have any blankets, pillows, or personal belongings on the lap beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination.

These requirements have been interpreted by airlines in varying ways and with varying degrees of compliance.  Some readers report flights in which the crew rolled their eyes when advising of the new restrictions and basically said they would not enforce them, and other readers report that flight crew were allowing passengers to go to the bathroom, but that a crew member would escort the passenger to and from the bathroom.

Apparently also some flights have the crew making a big thing about ensuring passengers go to the bathroom in the 30 minutes prior to the one hour deadline, but that is not enough time for all passengers to use the bathrooms.  It seems to take a person anywhere from two to many minutes to use a bathroom, and with fewer than one bathroom per thirty passengers on a plane, that means you should allow for more than an hour for all passengers to take a bathroom break, and that would also mean that the passengers who went at the beginning of the one hour 'now is your last chance' period end up with a minimum of 2 or more hours from then until their next chance to get to a bathroom.

This is an important implication of the 'can't get up one hour prior to landing' rule.  It is not the same as 'can't go to the bathroom for an hour' - due to the lines of people prior to the one hour deadline all wanting a last minute comfort stop, some people will find they are forced to wait much longer than an hour.  Only the lucky few people who went immediately prior to the deadline will have a one hour (or longer) wait, everyone else will be waiting for varying amounts greater than one hour.

Disabling the moving map type information required some airlines to turn off their entire in-flight entertainment systems, and for the entire 10+ hour flight, but apparently most airlines are now working out how to just turn off the moving map part of the complete system.

The fifth restriction, on having things on one's lap, has also met varying degrees of interpretation and enforcement, with one reader reporting that passengers on his flight weren't even allowed to read the airline's own in-flight magazine, and other readers reporting that passengers continued to listen to music through headphones.

For no apparent reason, some airlines have also been requiring passengers in sleeper seats to return their seats to the full upright position for at least the last hour, and one reader reports this was required 80 minutes prior to arriving.  The logic (or authority) for this is totally absent.

One of the more subtle but also significant things is the level of opposition to these new security measures.

Even though classified as 'Sensitive Security Information', copies of the TSA's Emergency Amendment have been widely leaked, presumably by annoyed airlines and possibly even TSA staff members, and presumably because the airlines (as well as all of us) are appalled and horrified at the nonsensical and totally reactive rather than proactive response from the TSA, a response that seems to be customized to respond solely and exclusively to people seeking to do exactly the same thing as the crotch-bomber, but not considering any variations from that failed approach.

In case you are interested, at the bottom of this email is the exact text of one version of the TSA's Emergency Amendment (there are different versions for domestic and international airlines).

And lastly, let's put this all into perspective.  According to this article, in the last ten years (including 9/11) there have been a mere six notable airborne terror attempts involving flights to, from, or within the US.  This means you have one chance in 16.5 million of being on a problem flight, which is also means you'll encounter one terrorist event per 3,105 years of continually flying.

Your next flight will probably be as safe for you as all the flights you've flown to date.  But it may be a whole lot less pleasant.

I'll update you again if needed, otherwise, stay tuned for Friday's regular newsletter

David M Rowell aka The Travel Insider

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Transportation Security Administration                                                                                                                                          

Aviation Emergency Amendment 

Subject:  Emergency Amendment  

Number:  EA 1546-09-01

                    Date: December 25, 2009 


EXPIRATION0200Z on December 30, 2009

This Emergency Amendment (EA) must be implemented immediately.  The measures contained in this EA are in addition to all other EAs currently in effect for your operations. 

INFORMATION:  On December 25, 2009, a terrorist attack was attempted against a flight traveling to the United States.  TSA has identified security measures to be implemented by airports, aircraft operators, and foreign air carriers to mitigate potential threats to flights.


ACTIONS REQUIRED:   If you conduct scheduled and/or public charter flight operations under a Full Program under 49 CFR Part 1546 departing from any foreign location to the United States (including its territories and possessions), you must immediately implement all measures in this EA for each such flight.   


A.    A.  The foreign air carrier or authorized air carrier representative must ensure all passengers are screened at the boarding gate during the boarding process using the following procedures.  These procedures are in addition to the screening of all passengers at the screening checkpoint.

1.Perform thorough pat-down of all passengers at boarding gate prior to boarding, concentrating on upper legs and torso. 

2.Physically inspect 100 percent of all passenger accessible property at the boarding gate prior to boarding, with focus on syringes being transported along with powders and/or liquids.  

3.Ensure the liquids, aerosols, and gels restrictions are strictly adhered to in accordance with EA 1546-06-02E. 

B.    B.  During the boarding process, the foreign air carrier may exempt passengers who are Heads of State or Heads of Government from the measures outlined in Section I.A. of this EA, including the following who are traveling with the Head of State or Head of Government: 

 1.     Spouse and children, or

 2.     One other individual (chosen by the Head of State or Head of Government)

 C.    For the purposes of Section I.B., the following definitions apply: 

1.     Head of State:  An individual serving as the chief public representative of a monarchic or republican nation-state, federation, commonwealth, or any other political state (for example, King, Queen, and President).   

2.     Head of Government:  The chief officer of the executive branch of a government presiding over a cabinet (for example, Prime Minister, Premier, President, and Monarch).   

II.       IN FLIGHT 

A.     A.  During flight, the foreign air carrier must ensure that the following procedures are followed:   

1.     Passengers must remain in seats beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination.   

2.     Passenger access to carry-on baggage is prohibited beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination.   

3.     Disable aircraft-integrated passenger communications systems and services (phone, internet access services, live television programming, global positioning systems) prior to boarding and during all phases of flight.   

4.     While over U.S. airspace, flight crew may not make any announcement to passengers concerning flight path or position over cities or landmarks.   

5.     Passengers may not have any blankets, pillows, or personal belongings on the lap beginning 1 hour prior to arrival at destination. 

FOREIGN AIR CARRIER ACKNOWLEDGMENT:  The foreign air carrier must immediately provide written confirmation to its assigned IIR, indicating receipt of this EA.

FOREIGN air carrier DISSEMINATION required:  The foreign air carrier must immediately pass the information and directives set forth in this EA to all stations affected and provide written confirmation to its IIR, indicating that all stations affected have acknowledged receipt of the information and directives set forth in this EA.  The foreign air carriers must disseminate this information to senior management personnel, ground security coordinators, and supervisory security personnel at all affected locations.  All foreign air carrier personnel implementing this EA must be briefed by the air carrier on this EAs content and the restrictions governing dissemination.  No other dissemination may be made without prior approval of the Assistant Secretary of the Transportation Security Administration.  Unauthorized dissemination of this document or information contained herein is prohibited by 49 CFR Part 1520.

APPROVAL OF ALTERNATIVE MEASURES:  With respect to the provisions of this EA, as stated in 49 CFR Part 1546, the foreign air carrier may submit in writing to their IIR proposed alternative measures and the basis for submitting the alternative measures for approval from the Assistant Administrator for the Office of Global Strategies.  The air carrier shall immediately notify its IIR whenever any procedure in this EA cannot be carried out by the air carrier or its agents or is not being carried out by a government authority charged with performing security procedures.

FOR TSA ACTION ONLY: The TSA shall issue this EA immediately to the corporate security element of all affected 49 CFR Part 1546 air carriers.

FOR STATE DEPARTMENT: Retransmittal to appropriate posts is authorized.  The foreign post must refer to STATE 162917, 201826Z Sep 01, Subject: FAA Security Directives and Information Circulars: Definitions and Handling, for specific guidance and dissemination.

In recognition of the threat to civil aviation, as described in the information portion of this EA, I have determined that these circumstances constitute an emergency requiring immediate action to ensure safety in air transportation.  Notice and comment procedures, in accordance with 49 CFR 1546.105(d), would be impractical and contrary to the safety of the traveling public.


 Gale Rossides

Acting Administrator