Image: Dog sniffing bags
Nick Ut  /  AP
Los Angeles International Airport Officer Jerome Evans works with "K-9 Alda" during increased security checks at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday.
updated 12/29/2009 10:21:50 AM ET 2009-12-29T15:21:50

You are now free to move about the cabin. Or not.

After a two-day security clampdown prompted by a thwarted attempt to bomb a jetliner, some airline officials told The Associated Press that the in-flight restrictions had been eased. And it was now up to captains on each flight to decide whether passengers can have blankets and other items on their laps or can move around during the final phase of flight.

Confused? So were scores of passengers who flew Monday on one of the busiest travel days of the year. On some flights, passengers were told to keep their hands visible and not to listen to iPods. Even babies were frisked. But on other planes, security appeared no tighter than usual.

The Transportation Security Administration did little to explain the rules. And that inconsistency might well have been deliberate: What's confusing to passengers is also confusing to potential terrorists.

"It keeps them guessing," transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman said.

By not making public a point-by-point list of new security rules, federal officials also retain more flexibility, the DePaul University professor added, enabling them to target responses to certain airports or flights seen as more vulnerable.

"There was criticism after 9-11 that rules could be way too cookbook — not allowing authorities to adapt them to different settings, to different airports," Schwieterman said.

If the objective was to befuddle, then on Monday it was mission accomplished.

On one Air Canada flight from Toronto to New York's LaGuardia Airport, crew members told passengers before departure that they were not allowed to use any electronic devices — even iPods — and would not be able to access their personal belongings during the one-hour flight.

The questions came as President Barack Obama ordered a review of air-safety regulations. TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne declined to offer details other than to say the agency would "continually review and update these measures to ensure the highest level of security."

Keep your hands where we can see them
An hour before a US Air flight from Manchester, England, to Philadelphia landed, flight attendants removed passengers' blankets and told them to keep their "hands visible," said passenger Walt Swanson of Cumbria, England. Video: Controversial screeners may have detected underwear bomb

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Even bathroom visits were affected on some flights.

On Continental Flight 1788 from Cancun, Mexico, to Newark, three airport security agents frisked everyone at the gate, including babies, prompting one to scream loudly in protest. On the plane, crew announced that the toilets would be shut down the last hour of the flight and passengers would not be able eat, drink, or use electronic devices.

The warning that the bathrooms would be shut down led to lines 10 people deep at each lavatory. A demand by one attendant that no one could read anything either elicited gasps of disbelief and howls of laughter.

In-cabin screens normally showing the plane's location and flight path were switched off on an Air France flight Saturday from San Francisco to Paris. Flight attendants said they were turned off as a security measure.

One of the Transportation Security Administration restrictions that most annoyed the airlines was an order to shut off in-flight entertainment systems on international flights. Airlines objected, and on Sunday night, the TSA apparently relented and left it to the discretion of airline crews to decide whether to turn off the systems.

"It was a hardship on our customers," said Mateo Lleras, a spokesman for JetBlue Airways, which touts its seatback entertainment systems and operates international flights to the Caribbean, Mexico and Costa Rica. "We're not in a position to challenge the TSA security directives, and we do the best we can to comply."

The TSA also relaxed rules that had prohibited passengers from leaving their seats, opening carry-on bags and keeping blankets or babies on their laps during the last hour of international flights entering the U.S., according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the TSA had not publicly disclosed the change.

Crews were given the authority to impose restrictions for shorter periods or not at all, said the official.

‘Pay attention to everybody’
Holiday traveler Sharen Rayburn, of Trion, Ga., said it took two hours to get through security in Denver because guards were checking every bag multiple times.

"You're a little more apprehensive to fly. You kind of pay attention to everybody," she said after landing at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International.

At Pearson International Airport in Toronto on Monday morning, every U.S.-bound passenger was subjected to a pat-down and luggage was inspected by hand. It took about three hours to get through the checks, with some information boards citing the security measures for several delays and cancellations.

Elsewhere, especially on domestic flights, passengers said they had not detected security upgrades.

"I honestly didn't notice a difference, and we didn't receive any special instructions from the crew," said James Merling, a 68-year-old doctor who flew from Marquette, Mich., to Boston's Logan International Airport on Monday.

Lexi Wirthlin, 22, who arrived at Philadelphia International Airport on Monday from St. Louis, Mo., said she was warned by friends to expect long lines at airport screening points or other hassles onboard.

"I was expecting it to be intense," she said. "But it was totally fine."

But just because authorities imposed and then pulled back on in-flight rules in the last couple of days does not mean they will never be reinstated.

Schwieterman said new safety procedures have a tendency to become permanent, citing how attempted shoe-bomber Richard Reid's attack in 2001 ushered in footwear checks.

"I would say it is hard to imagine going back to a more lax security process given the persistence of these attempts," he said. "This is now a part of everyday life."

What now?
Here are some common questions and answers to help you navigate your way in the immediate future.

Q: Will strict security rules be the same at all airports?

A: For now, security checkpoint requirements for passengers departing U.S. airports remain the same; most of the new security measures apply to flights heading to the U.S. from other countries. But as Homeland Security’s Secretary Janet Napolitano warned, some new security measures put in place “are designed to be unpredictable,” so you may not see the same procedures in force everywhere. Bottom line? Be ready for anything.

Q: How early should passengers arrive at the airport?

A: Given the confusion over the new rules and possible delays at domestic and international security checkpoints, it’s a good idea to head to the airport as early as possible, especially if you’re traveling on an incoming international flight. American Airlines, for example, is urging passengers to arrive at least three hours early for an international flight to the U.S. Due to long lines, American and United has also announced a change fee waiver for customers flying from Canada to the United States. Other airlines may follow suit.

Do what you can to minimize delays: go online to get a boarding pass and to pay for checked luggage, and double-check to make sure all items in your carry-on bag meet TSA requirements. This will not be a good time to argue that your 6-ounce tube of toothpaste should be allowed through security because the tube is only half-full.

Q: Are airlines waiving all checked-bag fees for international flights to the U.S?

A: No. Because passengers are no longer able to take more than one carry-on bag onto a U.S.-bound flight, many airlines are temporarily waiving the checked bag fee for additional carry-on bags turned away. That waiver is temporary and only applies to bags that would have met an airline’s size and weight definition of a carry-on bag, but not on any bag that would have otherwise traveled as checked luggage.

Bottom line: try to fit items you might need during your flight into one carry-on bag. Check your airline’s size and weight restrictions for carry-on bags and get out your tape measure before heading to the airport. And be prepared for these rules to change: late Sunday evening, for example, WestJet announced that it would no longer accept roller bags or larger backpacks as carry-on luggage.

Q: Are long delays experienced over the weekend going to continue?

A: Most likely. It’s a good idea to arrive at the airport as early as possible. Bring snacks, books and other items to keep yourself occupied and calm while waiting in line. And be sure to print out and/or program into your cell phone the contact numbers for your airline, car rental agency and hotel. If you miss your flight because of security delays, you’ll need to get on the phone right away to rebook your reservations.

Msnbc.com contributor Harriet Baskas contributed to this report.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Tighter security slows travelers

  1. Closed captioning of: Tighter security slows travelers

    >> matt, thank you. with the new security measures put in place, if you're flying any time soon, you should expect the unexpected. nbc's kevin tibbles is at the detroit metro airport with more on that. kevin , good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning, amy. you know, airport officials tell me that some passengers are so anxious about the new security measures, they are showing up four, five, even six hours ahead of time. lengthy lineups have been the order of the day since christmas day's failed terror attack . from chicago o'hare --

    >> been standing in line for about an hour now, waiting to check my bags. it's moving real slow because of security and stuff.

    >> reporter: to detroit metro, passengers were anxious about increased security .

    >> a lot of different folks i've talked to in line told me my flight's not for six hours, but we didn't want to waste any time.

    >> reporter: airport officials tell passengers to be prepared for added, often random, security checks that may include being patted down or having luggage hand searched. this is especially the case for international travelers headed to the u.s.

    >> they had to check everybody, one per one, just to frisk them and open all the bags, get everything out of the hand luggage.

    >> reporter: security sources now say on flights bound for the united states , the tsa is allowing pilots to use their discretion and decide whether passengers must remain seated for the last hour of the flight, whether they can access carry-on luggage or even have a blanket or pillow.

    >> on the plane it was quite different because we couldn't go to the toilet one hour before landing and we couldn't even read magazines.

    >> reporter: some question the severity of the new rules.

    >> there's a difference between being unpredictable and being silly. airport security needs to be unpredictable so the bad guys don't know exactly what they're going to run into. but some of the measures that have been put in place this week are just downright silly.

    >> reporter: airport officials are advising travelers to arrive 90 minutes ahead of domestic flights and between two and three hours ahead of international flights. and for many passengers, the extra hassle is worth it.

    >> it means some personal sacrifices, but it also means that we get a chance to land with all the wheels rather than landing after the plane explodes. so, i'm okay with that.

    >> reporter: clearly, in the interests of safety, these new safety measures have to be an accepted part of airline travel these days, but obviously, here in detroit metro this morning with the long lines, even outside in the subzero temperatures and around the world, people are going to have to get used to waiting and waiting. amy?

    >> all right, kevin tibbles. thanks so much.

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