An uncertain guide to summer travel

     Going through an airport's Transportation Security Administration checkpoint can give travelers a lot to cope with. (AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser, file)

    Going through an airport's Transportation Security Administration checkpoint can give travelers a lot to cope with. (AP Photo/Erik S. Lesser, file)

    Planning to jet soon? Brace yourself for the airport, which for me is way scarier than flying. It’s the security. That is my idea of torture.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    Planning to jet soon? Brace yourself for the airport, which for me is way scarier than flying. It’s the security. Waiting in line, I worry about my carry-on. What if they take it? Worse, what if they do a hand-search, burrowing through clothing packed with surgical precision and immobilized in tissue? That is my idea of torture.

    Even studying the regulations, I am never totally certain about what is allowed, what will be confiscated, and what might pinpoint me as a terrorist threat. I measure the length, width and depth of my carry-on, even though it is the same luggage I’ve been using for years. I practice-pack my resealable quart bag, and check my three-ounce bottles of essential liquids.

    Aren’t you glad you don’t travel with me?

    It can be confusing

    By now, we should all know what to leave at home. But it isn’t so simple, because the list of permissible items changes, and in ways that defy common logic. For instance, did you know that knitting needles have been permitted on airplanes since 2005? Me neither. No wonder the security agents pull so many grandmas out of line for the extra-special search.

    This year, the Transportation Safety Administration proposed allowing more carry-on items, so they’d be able to focus on things that pose the greatest threat to aircraft, like explosives. The TSA said broadening the carry-on list would ease the flow of passengers through security.

    Oh, yes they did.

    Has the TSA not noticed that people boarding planes already look like homesteaders who can’t afford a prairie schooner? And here’s what they wanted to allow next: hockey sticks, ski poles, golf clubs and pocketknives. MacGyver might have smiled at the news, but plenty of others were aghast, led by the flight attendants who, unlike cockpit doors, are not impervious to short blades, wooden clubs or titanium shafts.

    Given the outcry, the TSA delayed the decision. In May, groups representing airline employees, passenger advocates, law enforcement experts, and others filed a legal challenge. It is not clear when a decision will be made.

    So what are we to do — those of us soon to stand in stocking feet, waiting to be scanned, patted down, and otherwise scrutinized? Is there anything we can count on as we measure our suitcases one last time?

    Lines? Longer.

    Sure: Longer lines and higher prices. Count on those. They are the new death and taxes. When was the last time a news report — on any topic — did not end with, “So, expect to spend more time and money. Back to you, Jane.”

    This time around, the sequester is being blamed for longer lines. In case you have forgotten, the sequester is the federal government’s budgetary version of the sword of Damocles. The TSA lost $396 million, and promptly cut staff. By September, the agency expected to have 2,600 fewer employees through furloughs and attrition.

    So if you’re traveling between now and Labor Day, leave for the airport immediately. Bring snacks, something to read, and a pillow. At least we can knit ourselves blankets while we wait. Just don’t bring a Swiss Army knife to cut the yarn. At least, not yet.

    Carry-on regs on hold

    The TSA’s exciting new carry-on rules could still take effect, so let’s review:

    Knife blades can be up to 2.36 inches long and a half-inch wide. No word on who’s in charge of measuring. You don’t whittle? Well, perhaps you’ll carry on your hockey or lacrosse stick, pool cue, ski poles, golf clubs or wiffle ball bat. They would be permitted, too. Sadly, neither croquet mallets nor fencing foils were mentioned, leaving swankier tourists in doubt. Wiffle ball bats are a curious inclusion, but knowledgeable sources (okay, just me) think they were included by the TSA to see who read the entire announcement.

    In theory, these changes align American carry-on rules with those of other countries. Experienced travelers know this is utter nonsense: Each nation has its own regulatory quirks. For example, in the U.S. we remove our shoes, but not in Ireland. There, they are preoccupied with umbrellas. At Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport, the agents are fascinated by personal grooming items and don’t even try to stifle their glee when they confiscate essential manicure tools. Especially when they belong to an American. Or so I hear.

    The liquid rule stays the same, and is simple to remember, 3-1-1: three-ounce bottles in a one-quart bag, one to a passenger. To summarize: small knives, not yet; Louisville sluggers, no; water, still $3.

    If these go through, we will have more to worry about than wrinkling our Bermudas or being run over by the beverage cart. Suddenly, the thing poking you in the ribs may not be your neighbor’s pointy elbow, and what if there is turbulence and all those pool cues come tumbling out of the ceiling?

    We got trouble.

    The good news: New uniforms

    In addition to cutting budgets and revisiting carry-on items, the TSA thought about its wardrobe. Early this year, before the sequester, the agency approved a $50 million, one-year contract with VF Imagewear for agent uniforms.

    New TSA employees receive three long-sleeve shirts, three short-sleeve shirts, two pair of trousers, two ties, a belt, sweater, socks, and a jacket. Ironically, employees purchase their own shoes, which may partly explain their fascination with ours.

    Personally, I can’t wait see the new look. Dividing $50 million by the 50,000 security officers, inspectors, air marshals and managers TSA employed as of March 1, uniform expenditures amount to $1,000 for each employee. Before shoes.

    With longer lines, we’ll have plenty of time to evaluate the results. Go ahead and ask the security agent to show you her shoes as you place yours in the plastic bin and shuffle through the scanner. On second thought, maybe we should just keep our heads down and stick to our knitting.

    One thing is clear: If the evildoers are half as confused as infrequent flyers like me, the homeland is safe.

    You may now resume packing. Have a pleasant flight.

    Pamela J. Forsythe is a writer and communications consultant in Philadelphia.

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