Several years ago, my family was flying with friends just after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) banned all containers of liquids greater than 3 ounces from going through airport security checkpoints.
Even in our small regional airport, the supersized trash bin was overflowing with bottles of shampoo and nail polish and half-drunk sodas. Our friends were caught unaware of the new regulations and ended up adding contact-lens solution and a full bottle of water to the trash pile.
One friend turned around to me and sighed, "I swear, every time we fly, there is some new security issue to deal with."
Based on the number of people I come across who still seem surprised about the restrictions on liquids and the requirement to take off shoes, it appears that unless you fly frequently, many TSA regulations can catch you unprepared.
Less hassle for young …
Fortunately, the latest changes will mean an easier ride through security for most passengers.
"Since last summer, the TSA has adopted a much more risk-based security approach," said Lisa Farbstein of the TSA office of public affairs. "Risk-based security is an understanding that the vast majority of travelers pose little risk to aviation security, and that the one-size-fits-all security model, which has been in place since the attacks of 9/11, needed to be re-evaluated."
Don't get all your hopes up just yet. You still have to put your carry-on liquids in 3-ounce containers, and then put those containers into a quart-sized clear plastic bag, and most everybody still has to take off his or her shoes.
But there have been changes since last summer. One of the biggest changes eases the airport screening procedure for children ages 12 and younger.
Kids can now keep their shoes on while walking through security screening — a relief to anyone who's ever dealt with trying to put shoes back on a toddler in the middle of a congested screening area.
That doesn't mean your child will have a free pass through security. He or she still has to go through the scanner just like everyone else, but with their shoes on.
The TSA official blog states, "These new screening procedures also include permitting an additional pass through advanced imaging technology to clear any alarms, as well as greater use of explosives-trace detection."
However, the TSA pointed out that children will not be separated from their parents at any time during security check-in.
… and old
In some airports, at least, travelers over the age of 75 will be getting a similar break.
According to the TSA blog, "TSA recently concluded a modified screening pilot program for passengers ages 75 and older.
"As the program proceeds toward full implementation, passengers 75 and older will undergo similar modified screening procedures to those 12 and under and will be able to leave on a light jacket or outerwear when passing through security. Passengers 75 and older may see these procedures in place as they travel this summer."
What you can actually bring on the plane in your carry-luggage hasn't changed too much over the years ever since the "3-1-1" policy was established (liquids and gels in 3-ounce containers in one quart-size bag, one bag per person).
The TSA recommends packing as much liquid into the checked luggage as possible, but realizes that more people are avoiding checking luggage whenever possible, thanks to additional airline fees.
Suntan lotions count as a liquid or gel and have to meet the same requirements as your shampoo. That includes aerosol cans of sunblock. If you don't want to deal with putting the lotion in your checked luggage, you may be best off purchasing your suntan lotions at your vacation destination.
You may see some people breezing through security checkpoints without having to remove their shoes or empty their carry-on luggage.
Why do those people get special privileges? They're part of the TSA's new PreCheck program, which was established for frequent fliers who spend almost as much time in airplanes as they do in cars.
Airlines designate certain elite fliers for consideration into the PreCheck program, which is being slowly rolled out in airports across the country.
"I was selected by Delta Airlines, since I'm one of their super elite travelers, and I filled in the required information," explained comedian and former computer engineer Dan Nainan. "Now every time I go to LaGuardia or any airport where they have it, I am always selected."
It's all part of making security screening more efficient, said Farbstein.
"These enhancements allow us to focus our resources on those travelers we know less about and thus may pose a greater risk to aviation security," she said.
Security with privacy
Farbstein added that the TSA has installed numerous modified advanced-imaging-technology scanners at airport checkpoints. The days of TSA agents seeing a naked image of you may be numbered.
"This also is new and different this summer compared to last summer," Farbstein said. "These new machines give our officers the best chance to detect both metallic and nonmetallic items concealed on a passenger, and at the same time, the technology enhances passenger privacy."
The new machines have "targeted recognition" that shows a generic cookie-cutter outline, or avatar, of a person instead of the real image. If the machine detects something, a yellow box appears on the image where the item was spotted.
For example, at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, one of the machines recently detected something on a passenger's ankle. Thanks to the avatar image, the TSA screening officer knew exactly where to look. It turned out that the passenger had concealed a 10-inch canister of Mace in his sock.
Keeping tabs on changes
The best way to keep up with the latest changes in TSA policies is to check the agency's website. Be aware, though, that while the website is updated regularly and has a lot of useful information, the TSA also has a few phone numbers for travelers with specific questions or concerns.
TSA Cares, which is designed specifically for passengers with disabilities, special needs or medical conditions, can be reached at 1-855-787-2227. Call before traveling with questions about screening, procedures and what to expect. The helpline is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST.
Just in time for summer travel, the TSA has extended the hours of its TSA Contact Center for passengers to call with questions about TSA procedures, upcoming travel or to provide feedback or concerns.
The Contact Center is now available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. and weekends from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST, and can be reached at 1-866-289-9673. For less urgent questions, you can also email the Contact Center at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The TSA also offers a mobile app called MyTSA for iPhones. The app provides answers to what you can and cannot bring on the plane with you, what to do if you've lost your ID and other quick questions you may have. It also provides airport information, including about flight delays.
Speaking of apps, there is a new app available for iPhones and Android phones called Fly Rights that allows passengers to report any problems or concerns during their encounters with TSA and the security process.
Keep cool and be polite
No matter how often or little you fly, remember that almost every other passenger is subject to the same security regulations you are.
The security process will much less stressful if you remain patient, give yourself plenty of time to get through a checkpoint and are prepared by the time you reach the item-screening belt.
Wear shoes that are easy to slip off, have your bag of liquids and your laptop out of your luggage, have your belt off and make sure your pockets are empty. This all streamlines the process and will help ease the tensions that reach a boiling point for many other passengers.
"Here is what I consider to be the most important tip one can take to heart," said frequent-flier Nainan. "No matter what happens, always, always be extremely, extremely nice to the TSA agents.
"To a person, none of them will be mean to you if you're not mean to them. They have jobs just like us and have to deal with really nasty people all day long. By being kind to them, you are a breath of fresh air."