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Travel regulation changes you need to know

/ Source: Independent Traveler

Since the year 2007 started off with an ambush of a passport policy change, we kept our eyes peeled for the same this year — and of course were not disappointed. Not inclined to waste any time, at least when it comes to surprising travelers, the Department of Transportation instituted a policy change on the morning of January 1. Naturally, they chose the Friday between Christmas and New Year's — the last possible business day to do so, not to mention the last one of the year — to announce the new policy.

Now, just because I was checking security policies over the holidays doesn't mean normal people were doing so. It almost seems like the policy was meant to go unnoticed — at least until you arrived at the airport security checkpoint. Toward eliminating more surprises as the days and months pass, I have compiled some of the rule and policy changes coming in 2008 — read up now so they won't kick in when you're not looking.

Batteries are the new bad guy
The aforementioned ambush refers to the new security policy — announced on December 28 that took effect on January 1 — that limits the number of lithium batteries with which you may travel, as well as the way in which you can travel with them.

The policy statement is no easy read, but it appears that the new rule permits you to bring only two "spare" rechargeable lithium batteries in your carry-on bags. These must either be in their original packaging, or in a plastic bag or travel case. You may only travel with batteries in your checked bags if they are installed in an electronic device (but of course checking something like your laptop or camera is the practical equivalent of chucking it off a bridge).

I'm OK at parsing legalese, but I am not entirely confident of my interpretation — the DOT's statement meanders like a drunken ant.

It does provide some comic relief, however — as if they know just how wicked a New Year's Day policy change is. The requirement to know how many grams your batteries weigh is a nice challenge for New Year's morning, but my favorite part is Lynne Osmus's comment that "it's the right thing to do and the right time to do it."

New Year's morning is the right time to secure the world from rechargeable lithium batteries? It's more like the right time to sleep in and hoard Excedrin. Yeesh.

State Department struggled — Now it's the DMV's turn
Since administration of the new passport rules went so well, the Homeland Security Department is linking their Real ID program to the issuance of state driver's licenses. The REAL ID act is a law intended "to make it harder for terrorists, illegal immigrants and con artists to get government-issued identification."

There are significant debates over the privacy implications of the law, but for our purposes it is the timing of the law that merits concern; the original plan was for adoption by May 2008. Meanwhile, a large majority of travelers still use their old vanilla driver's licenses as legal ID to board planes (not to mention drive their cars) — and the Department of Homeland Security has made some rumblings about enforcing the requirement come May. Which would mean you're not boarding a plane without a valid passport, or a new high-tech driver's license that is still in R&D — which can't fail to bring back memories of the immense backlog for passports when the new rules launched last year. Round and round we go ...

Many believe, however, that the DHS is using the May deadline as a threat, albeit a hollow one, to force states to adopt the REAL ID statutes. Someone seems to have learned a good lesson from the passport fiasco — despite recent posturing, the DHS has officially relaxed critical deadlines for some time in 2011. They (and we) will need the time; I have been to a few empty passport offices in my life, but never, ever have I visited a DMV office where the waiting areas were not packed to the rafters.

Airline merger mania
Many business analysts expect a rush to consolidate in the airline industry this year. At present, the most likely candidates seem like Northwest, Delta, United and Continental, who have been engaged in a sort of round robin of talks and possibilities. Speculation has been churning about Northwest and Delta in particular, with pilots' unions at both airlines expressing concern over contractual implications. The pilots have cause for concern, as do we — remember when Northwest was forced to make mass flight cancellations due to pilot shortages at the height of the summer 2007 travel season?

This is no longer mere prognosticating; just last week Northwest confirmed merger talks with Delta, sending airline stocks soaring. Many expect a potential courtship of United and Continental to get more serious. Meanwhile, Delta, the fickle courtier, has been talking about merging with United as well.

What does this mean to travelers? Every past merger has led to disruption in service, scheduling, staffing and more. The most palpable changes would be a constriction in route maps and flight frequency — i.e., reduced consumer choice, with flight cuts of up to 15 percent by some estimates — and likely fare hikes as competition gives way to consolidation.

Open skies
It's not just domestic carriers getting involved in U.S. airline merger mania. Air France is considering helping Delta fund a bid for Northwest. A recent Lufthansa-Jet Blue deal is another example. These trends are all outgrowths of the Open Skies Agreement, a treaty between the United States and the European Union to allow airlines to fly freely between any U.S. and E.U. cities. The agreement goes into effect on March 31.

What will this mean to travelers headed to Europe? It appears that greatly increased capacity and choice will be the most obvious result. For example, Heathrow Airport will be thrown open to full competition, not just the four U.S. and U.K. airlines that can currently fly there from the U.S. — American, British Airways, United and Virgin Atlantic. (Flights to Heathrow on other airlines are codeshares with one of these airlines.)

It's possible that fares will go down on the most popular routes, particularly from East Coast cities with a lot of major airlines in play, such as Atlanta, New York, Boston and the like. And who knows, flights from Akron to Athens could well be in Greek Ohioans' future.

And finally: Passports redux, of course
Documentation is heavy on the minds of politicians, pundits, regulators and bureaucrats these days, no question. If changing passports and driver's license rules, formats and deadlines aren't enough for you to keep track of, now the State Department is going to split the difference with the issuance of PASS cards, a passport card for use solely in land or sea border crossings that could show up in the hands of U.S. citizens as early as April.

Part of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a strategy to tighten up U.S. borders by air, land and sea recommended by the 9/11 Commission, the idea behind the PASS card is to:

Create a less expensive ($45) and less unwieldy (i.e. wallet-friendly) alternative to folks who cross the borders regularly by land or sea, but who previously would not have had a passport, instead relying on more common ID forms such as a driver's license. The new PASS card will be approximately the size of a credit card.

"Facilitate entry and expedite document processing at U.S. land and sea ports-of-entry when arriving from Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean and Bermuda."

Be electronically and quickly readable by a wireless device to reduce waits at border crossings.

The new card would not be valid for air travel, as international air travelers will still need a valid "regular" passport.

Applications for passport cards will be accepted beginning February 1. In the longer term and bigger picture, by January 31 of this year, officials will phase out allowing oral declarations of citizenship for border crossing, and by January 2009, you should plan to have in your possession one or another form of DHS-approved identification if you plan to do any traveling of consequence. For complete information on the new travel identification rules, visit the Department of State's Bureau of Consular Affairs by clicking here.

One thing is certain: Given how clogged things got after the last passport rule changes, you'll want to stay ahead of the curve this time. If you're facing a passport or documentation deadline, act sooner rather than later to get your papers in order. The State Department is currently processing passport applications within four to six weeks, with expedited service taking three weeks. Now is the time.

OK, now that we have really come full circle, I'm off to check expiration dates on every piece of paper in my house. Good luck getting your own papers in order; come this time next year, you'll need them!

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