What will you be able to take on a U.S. flight in the near future? Perhaps not much more than your birthday suit, if current trends continue.
Air travel comfort took a turn for the worse Thursday as federal regulators banned carry-on liquids. Blame terrorists who attempted to blow up U.S. aircraft using flammable liquids. Details are still emerging, but the attack was believed to be aimed at American Airlines, United Airlines and Continental Airlines flights headed for the U.S.
U.S. Homeland Security officials immediately issued a ban on soaps, soft drinks, toothpaste and all other liquids and gels except baby formula and prescription medicine. The new restrictions are bound to add to passenger discomfort.
"We kind of joke that the next thing is they are going to sedate us and put us in straitjackets," says Matt Holdrege, 43, a telecommunications executive who flies 100,000 miles per year on United. "You've got to drink something on the plane — most of us bring a lot of fluids."
Stripping travelers of the ability to carry aboard the most basic items, such as water, coffee, hairspray and toothpaste, is certain to heighten the growing animosity between U.S. airlines and their most lucrative customers — loyal business travelers. The relationship is already strained given packed planes, charges for meals, curbside check-in and fewer free seats for globetrotting frequent fliers.
After encouraging travelers to bring their own food and beverages aboard aircraft, U.S. carriers are now in the uncomfortable position of having to play policemen and ask travelers to pitch their bottled water or chug their coffee before hopping aboard. "What they are asking simply is not practical," says Eric Bosken, 29, a software consultant from Fort Worth, Texas, who also has Platinum Medallion status on Delta Airlines. "It's an overreaction."
Still, this friction is unlikely to cause any serious economic disruption to the already strapped airline industry, since most business travelers — the bread and butter for the major carriers — really have no viable alternative.
London's Heathrow Airport was jammed with passengers as airlines canceled flights. Delays rippled through the U.S. air traffic system as new restrictions were imposed on carry-on items. Passengers rifled through carry-on luggage, disposing of toiletries, suntan lotion and beverages into large garbage bins.
Onlookers watched as mothers were asked by security personnel to taste baby food. If a small child was traveling with mom, her breast milk or formula was given a pass. But carrying a hot cup of coffee or a bottle of water was prohibited.
For some travelers, the heightened scrutiny brought back memories of numerous past security crackdowns, and how some items, once considered major threats, are no longer banned. It's now OK to carry once-banned nail clippers and up to four books of safety matches. (Lighters remain forbidden.)
It is still illegal to carry on your favorite pool cue, but long knitting needles and metal scissors are permitted, according to the Transportation Security Administration’s list of prohibited carry-ons.
Along with some of the infamous past alerts came bureaucratic fumbling.
New York's LaGuardia airport was shut down in March and evacuated after a man's shoe set off a false alarm during screening. Turns out the man, who had been selected for secondary screening, had left the area. He was never found.
U.S. airports have been conducting routine shoe checks since British "shoe bomber" Richard Reid tried to blow up a Paris-Miami flight in 2001 by igniting explosives hidden in his shoe. Cigarette lighters have since been banned on U.S. aircraft.
Removing shoes has become a standard part of screening — so much so that concerns have been raised about whether all the bare and stockinged feet passing through security are spreading skin diseases. Flip-flops seem to be the mode of the day.
Women are all too familiar with the screeners. Underwire bras set off metal-detectors, subjecting the wearers to pat-down searches. The TSA has been barraged by complaints from women who said they felt they had been violated by overzealous screeners.
To avoid the extra scrutiny, some women have just stopped wearing bras. Less seems to be better when undergoing screening. Wearers of sweatshirts, sweaters and sport jackets are forced to remove them. Belts, watches and jewelry are often better left at home.
"Maybe we will have to get on naked next week, but it is for our own protection. I don't think any of us should take it lightly," says Carol Salcito, a frequent flier and business travel consultant. "It is terrible, but this is the kind of world we live in today."