Saturday, December 26, 2009

After Detroit: The Way We Fly Now

Many details remain to be discovered about the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Delta Air Lines/Northwest flight in Detroit, but one thing is perfectly clear: Travel and tourism in general, and civil aviation in particular, remain high-priority targets for globalized terrorists.

The latest murderous Islamic militant - identified in media reports as a 23-year-old Nigerian man who boarded the threatened plane in Amsterdam - to target innocent travelers was thwarted by alert passengers when he attempted to detonate an explosive device during landing at Detroit's international airport. Good on them. And shame on airport security officials who missed a chance to nab this would-be mass murderer while still on the ground. It's back to the drawing board for them, and the stakes couldn't be higher.

I have flown out of Amsterdam Schiphol airport, which has tougher security screening than most world airports. It was here that the would-be bomber, traveling originally from Lagos, Nigeria, changed planes for the United States. Passengers are screened again at the departure gate in Schipol airport just before boarding their flights. Additionally, the airport is testing whole-body X-ray screening machines that are said to be more sensitive in detecting objects concealed on the body than are other technologies. It's not clear at this writing whether the attacker passed through the latest high-tech screener or how he evaded other security measures.

In the short-term, the take-away for travelers heading to or from the United States is this: Travel will be slower and additional layers of airport and airline security - not all of them visible - will be in place, accounting for delays and frustrations. Understand and expect this.

This heightened security means that air travelers should leave for the airport earlier, be patient and expect their luggage and their person to be searched more thoroughly than in the recent past. Several airline Web sites - notably, Air Canada's site - have said U.S.-bound passengers should take just one carry-on bag onboard their flights, put away all bags, including laptops, during the final hour of flight, and say buckled in their seats during the last hour before landing. Air Canada cites the U.S. Transportation Security Administration for the rules changes, though the TSA as of this moment has not acknowledged making these requests.

Tighter security will certainly stay in place throughout the year-end holiday season, and probably beyond. Expect security to spike again if and when - and it's probably when - another incident occurs, and again during the busy summer travel season in the New Year.

It's sad and sometimes scary, but there it is. Some politicized religious fanatics still believe that the end justifies the means, and they are still doing their utmost to distrupt travel and cause as much harm as they can in the process. Don't let this stop you from traveling, but do take common-sense security precautions. After Detroit, this is the way we fly now.

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