Security tightens for planes to the U.S.

Measures come day after man tried to blow up jet

December 27, 2009|By Dan Weikel and Nicole Santa Cruz | Tribune newspapers

Travelers taking international flights to the United States on Saturday faced pat-down searches, new limits on carry-on luggage and more thorough screening at airport checkpoints after a Nigerian man allegedly tried to bomb a jetliner headed to Detroit.

Federal authorities have called on airlines and airports around the world to tighten security measures, including frisking all passengers headed to the U.S., performing additional searches and limiting passenger movements during the latter part of a flight.

The request came after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, was arrested and charged with attempting to ignite an incendiary device aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam as it prepared to land in Detroit on Friday. Passengers overpowered the man, and the Airbus A330 with 290 people on board landed safely.

After the incident, the Department of Homeland Security announced additional scrutiny for domestic and U.S.-bound passengers, and advised travelers to report any suspicious activity or behavior to law enforcement officials.

The new guidelines limit onboard activities by passengers and crew members while in U.S. airspace. Among other things, passengers must remain in their seats during the last hour of flight and cannot have access to their carry-on items or place any personal belongings in their laps.

Passengers on a United Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Washington were not allowed to have anything on their laps during the descent into Dulles, or to open the overhead bins an hour before landing, said Nehmi Klaassen, 32, who made the trip on Saturday.

Klaassen, who lives in Amsterdam, said lines at the airport were "10 times" longer than usual this time.

In response to the U.S. government's concerns, Canadian officials have ordered airlines and airports to conduct additional screening, limit travelers to one carry-on item, and restrict passenger movements.

In Amsterdam, travelers bound for the U.S. underwent pat-down searches, while airline passengers in Belgium were advised to report to the Brussels airport three hours early to allow for a second security check at the boarding gate.

At London's Heathrow Airport, travelers headed to the U.S. were searched twice and allowed only one carry-on item. Italy's civil aviation authority also required more thorough searches of passengers and baggage.

Airline and government officials said the restrictions have been imposed indefinitely and may vary from airport to airport.

"The Department of Homeland Security immediately put additional screening measures into place for all domestic and international flights to ensure the continued safety of the traveling public," said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. "We are also working closely with federal, state and local law enforcement on additional security measures, as well as our international partners on enhanced security at airports and on flights."

Napolitano said airline passengers should not expect to encounter the same things at airports because the precautions will differ from facility to facility so they are unpredictable.

Bruce Schneier, an author and security expert, said he doubted the new measures would be effective. Unless they include a person's body cavities, he said, searches of airline passengers can miss things.

Schneier added that restricting someone's movement and activity during the last hour of flight still gives a terrorist the opportunity to do something during the balance of the trip.

"This is security theater," he said. " ... We've always known you can strap explosive material to your body without a metal triggering device and get it on a plane. ... You need to stop terrorists before they get to the airport."

The new measures were noticed Saturday by Diane Sen, 23, and Neil Dass, 24, of Portland, Ore., who spent their honeymoon in Fiji. Before boarding their overseas flight to Los Angeles, they said they were screened three times and saw extra staff and guard dogs patrolling Nadi International Airport.

Sen said she did not mind the additional scrutiny and the thorough search of her carry-on bag. "The more we have, the better we feel," she said.

Transportation Security Administration officials said they would be increasing security measures at the nation's airports, including more use of bomb-sniffing dog teams, luggage-scanning devices, screening at gates and undercover officers who patrol the airports.

Still in effect for passengers are prohibitions against carrying on liquids and gels in containers larger than 3 ounces and the requirement that travelers remove their shoes for inspection.

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