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Travelers flying into the U.S. face stricter security measures

Passengers on international flights face pat-down searches, new limits on carry-on luggage and more thorough screening at airport checkpoints.

December 27, 2009|By Dan Weikel and Nicole Santa Cruz
  • Officer Mike Manahan observes as his police dog, Baxo, sniffs luggage at Los Angeles International Airport while travelers stand in a long security check line extending out of the departure lounge to the street.
Officer Mike Manahan observes as his police dog, Baxo, sniffs luggage at… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

Travelers taking international flights to the United States on Saturday faced pat-down searches, new limits on carry-on luggage and more thorough screening at airport checkpoints after a Nigerian man allegedly tried to bomb a jetliner headed to Detroit.

Federal authorities have called on airlines and airports around the world to tighten security measures, including frisking all passengers headed to the U.S., performing additional searches and limiting passenger movements during the latter part of a flight.

The request came after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, was arrested and charged with attempting to ignite an incendiary device aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam as it prepared to land in Detroit on Friday. Passengers overpowered the man, and the Airbus A330 with 290 people on board landed safely.

After the incident, the Department of Homeland Security announced additional scrutiny for domestic and U.S.-bound passengers, and advised travelers to report any suspicious activity or behavior to law enforcement officials.

The new guidelines limit on-board activities by passengers and crew members while in U.S. airspace. Among other things, passengers must remain in their seats during the last hour of flight and cannot have access to their carry-on items or place any personal belongings in their laps.

International travelers landing Saturday at Los Angeles International Airport noticed the new measures during their flights. Domestic passengers said they did not encounter such restrictions but saw a heightened security presence at their departure airports.

Because of the tighter security measures, airlines and governments worldwide advised passengers to arrive at airports early and to expect delays, missed connections and canceled flights.

"I understand why this is being done, but I feel like we are playing into their hands. It's like a Catch-22," said Grace Regnier, 65, who arrived at LAX on Saturday aboard a WestJet flight from Edmonton, Canada, that was delayed two hours.

Regnier and her companion, Pat Cunningham, flew to Los Angeles to take a cruise along the Mexican Riviera. At the Edmonton airport, she said, they went through scanners twice and everything in their carry-on bags was inspected.

Regnier confirmed that in the last hour before landing, passengers were not allowed to have anything on their laps, use any electronic device or leave their seats, even to use the lavatories.

In response to the U.S. government's concerns, Canadian officials have ordered airlines and airports to conduct additional screening, limit travelers to one carry-on item and restrict passenger movements.

In Amsterdam, travelers bound for the U.S. underwent pat-down searches, while passengers in Belgium were advised to report to the Brussels airport three hours early to allow for a second security check at the boarding gate.

At London's Heathrow Airport, travelers headed to the U.S. were searched twice and allowed only one carry-on. Italy's civil aviation authority also required more thorough searches of passengers and baggage.

Airline and government officials said the restrictions have been imposed indefinitely and may vary among airports.

"The Department of Homeland Security immediately put additional screening measures into place for all domestic and international flights to ensure the continued safety of the traveling public," said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. "We are also working closely with federal, state and local law enforcement on additional security measures, as well as our international partners on enhanced security at airports and on flights."

Napolitano said airline passengers should not expect to encounter the same things at all airports because the precautions will differ from facility to facility to ensure that they are unpredictable.

Bruce Schneier, an author and security expert, said he doubted the new measures would be effective. Unless searches include a person's body cavities, he said, they can miss things.

Schneier added that restricting someone's movement and activity during the last hour of flight still gives a terrorist the opportunity to do something during the balance of the trip.

"This is security theater," he said.

"We've always known you can strap explosive material to your body without a metal triggering device and get it on a plane," he said. "You need to stop terrorists before they get to the airport."

The new measures were noticed Saturday by Diane Sen, 23, and Neill Dass, 24, of Portland, Ore., who spent their honeymoon in Fiji. Before boarding their overseas flight to LAX, they said, they were screened three times and saw extra staff and dogs patrolling Nadi International Airport.

Sen said she did not mind the additional scrutiny and the thorough search of her carry-on bag. "The more we have, the better we feel," she said.

Transportation Security Administration officials said they would be increasing security measures at the nation's airports, including more use of bomb-sniffing dogs, luggage-scanning devices, screening at gates and undercover officers who patrol the airports.

Still in effect for passengers are prohibitions against carrying on liquids and gels in containers larger than 3 ounces and the requirement that travelers remove their shoes for inspection at security checkpoints.

Scanning footwear has been policy since Richard C. Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, tried to blow up an American Airlines flight in December 2001 by trying to set off explosives hidden in his shoes.

The rules related to liquids followed in 2006 after British authorities uncovered a plan to blow up planes bound for the United States with explosives that could be created by mixing liquids smuggled on board.

dan.weikel@latimes.com

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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