by Barbara Peterson
Airlines and travel industry associations this week sought to reassure the traveling public about new security procedures taking effect, even as some carriers warned travelers bound for the U.S. of longer lines at checkpoints, more scrutiny of electronic devices, and a wider pool of travelers selected for secondary screening.
Early reports from airports in Europe and Asia, however, suggest that the impact of the security moves — none of which are brand new — may not be as bad as feared.
Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research, told TMR that on his way back to San Francisco from Amsterdam, he did encounter some additional security at Schiphol Airport, mainly because he was randomly selected for a second screening. Still, he said, the screening process “didn’t seem very different. The only noticeable change was the number of passengers chosen for secondary screening.” He added that gate agents “didn’t ask any new questions,” and that “staff were professional, polite and pleasant.”
Procedures vary by country and by airline
In other countries, the procedures may vary, and that lack of consistency appears to be the main source of concern among airlines as they attempt to explain the changes to their customers.
In Germany, for example, passengers are being subjected to “interviews” which could include questions about who they saw and what they did while in Europe, as well as about general habits, even down to such matters as whether they have hobbies and what they are. A source at a German airline said the questioning is being done by government employees, not airline employees, and it typically will take place after check-in as passengers pass through border checks.
In other countries, passengers may be given a questionnaire to fill out rather than a verbal interrogation; and at others, the scrutiny may be directed more at their belongings — with additional swabbings of electronics and other items.
Seth Miller, an airline expert who pens the “Wandering Aramean” blog, said as he was departing Barcelona earlier this week, he was subjected to “a curious auto da fe;” among other things, he was asked how close he lives to his hometown airport. He, too, reported that there was a longer list of fellow passengers chosen for extra screening.
The new moves were expected. Earlier this year, the U.S. gave the 180 airlines that fly to the states six months to step up security, after a short-lived electronics ban barred laptops and other devices from hand luggage on flights from eight predominantly Muslim countries. The ban was prompted by intelligence that terrorists had developed hard-to-detect ways of hiding a bomb inside a laptop computer.
Potentially, more than 325,000 passengers on 2,000 commercial flights a day will be affected. But while the deadline was officially this week, a TSA source said that some airlines had been given an extension until early next year to comply.
Royal Jordanian Airlines, for example, said it would roll out new procedures in mid-January, and that it would involve handing out questionnaires to travelers prior to check-in. Airlines that have already announced procedures include Air France, Cathay Pacific, Delta, Emirates, Egyptair, Lufthansa and Singapore.
In Portugal, the government announced that both TAP Air Portugal and the Azorean line SATA would be working with Portuguese police to “conduct short security interviews of passengers flying to the United States.” Virgin Atlantic, however, took a somewhat different tack, saying that it was aware of the measures but that “we do not anticipate any disruption to customers.”
Travelers must plan extra time to check in, others services may be affected
The direct impact on customers is unclear, since most international fliers have become accustomed to periodic alarms over security – and as a result, allow extra time to get to the airport. But aside from the usual advice to arrive three hours in advance of departure, the changes could affect some other services; Cathay Pacific, for example, said it would suspend its downtown check-in and self-bag drop services in Hong Kong.
International airlines were generally supportive of the moves, with Airlines for America, a trade group, praising U.S. officials giving carriers flexibility in meeting the new requirements. But the head of the International Air Transport Association expressed some concerns about the way it was being carried out.
“What we have seen is very strange,” IATA chief Alexandre de Juniac told reporters in Taipei this week, describing the measures as having been announced “without any prior consultation. That is very concerning and disturbing.”