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Travel rules relaxed? Bless you, Mr. Chertoff

With the TSA's decision to ease the ban on liquids and gels on airplanes, I’m feeling a little more affection for homeland security czar Michael Chertoff and the legions of screeners at my local airport. By Rob Lovitt
Michael McCarron
Michael McCarron, director of Community Affairs at San Francisco International Airport, holds a bag of liquids and gel products which will be allowed through security checkpoints under amended rules.Tony Avelar / AP

I could kiss Michael Chertoff.

OK, maybe not, but after Monday's announcement that the Transportation Security Administration is easing the ban on liquids and gels on airplanes, I’m feeling a little more affection for the homeland security czar and the legions of TSA screeners at my local airport.

The changes, which go into effect Tuesday morning, mean liquids and gels will once again be allowed in carry-on luggage.

Well, some anyway. According to the new regulations, we’ll now be allowed to carry on “travel-sized” toiletries (three ounces or less), provided they’re placed in a single quart-sized, clear-plastic, zip-top bag. Beverages and other liquids purchased in the secure boarding area beyond security will also be allowed.

Is this a good idea? As a frequent flyer, I have to say, absolutely. Is this as good as it’s going to get? I sure hope not. If nothing else, though, it’s a step in the right direction toward bringing common sense back to the world of airport security.

What’s at risk?
Flying between Seattle and San Francisco a week after the August 10 restrictions went into effect, I was pleasantly surprised to find the security lines no worse than usual. Most folks, it seemed, had already stashed their liquids in their checked luggage. None of us liked the situation — the few who hadn’t gotten the message really didn’t like it — but we went along, accepting the argument that the inconvenience outweighed the impending risk.

Now, the TSA has determined that small quantities of liquids are safe to bring on board. This includes most toiletries, including lotions, gels, and aerosols, and the medicines and baby foods already allowed. Furthermore, if you buy a bottle of water or tall mocha grande after going through security, you won’t have to guzzle it when you get to your gate.

And that’s a good thing — although I sometimes wonder if it misses the bigger issue. Despite the potentially catastrophic effects of box cutters, shoe bombs, and liquid explosives, is prohibiting items in carry-on bags the best way to ensure we’re safe?

The fact is, the risk of terror attacks is hardly limited to carry-on bags — or even air travel, for that matter. Port facilities, city water supplies, nuclear power plants — all are potentially in the crosshairs, and when we step up security in one area, terrorists immediately start looking elsewhere. As a result — and pardon the morbid pun — airplane security will always be a moving target.

Unintended consequences
Honestly, we’ll never know if the ban on gels and liquids has served as any sort of deterrent, but it did have some interesting side effects. The good news is that with more passengers checking more luggage, the resulting decrease in onboard congestion has led to an increase in on-time departures. Alas, the bad news is that all those newly checked bags has also led to an increase in baggage-claim delays and lost bags.

Clearly, there are trade-offs, just as there are with the underlying issue of inconvenience vs. implied risk. In the end, I think most of us are willing to empty our pockets, remove our shoes, and if necessary, place our gels and liquids in our checked bags. We’d just like to know that our efforts are helping to stop dangerous people, not just prohibit dangerous items.

Bottom line: If allowing/disallowing individual items is truly addressing the issue, that’s fine; if it’s just window dressing, then we’ve got bigger problems than tossed lattes and tubes of Crest.

Packing light is still packing right
So, what’s a frequent flyer to do? Ultimately, that depends on the kind of flying you expect to be doing.

If you’re a business traveler or other member of the carry-on-only set, be happy that you can once again bypass the crowds at baggage claim. Just remember to pack your gels and liquids — “travel size” only — in a clear-plastic, zip-top bag. And be prepared to place it in a separate bin when you go through security.

If, however, you’re leaving for an extended trip, and expect to need more than three ounces of any item, you might as well continue packing it in your checked luggage. You might be surprised to learn what you can do without on all but the longest flights. Personally, I’ve already discovered that I like having more room in my carry-on bag for magazines, music, and once again, my big bottle of water.

Either way, consider the current situation a test case for the future of air travel. The fact is, the good old days are long gone, and changing times come with new realities and unforeseen risks. And while the TSA says not to expect any more changes in the security regulations any time soon, I think it’s safe to say that change is the one thing we can absolutely count on.