for National Geographic News
Airport security tightened just in time for the busiest travel season of the year. On Tuesday more than 40,000 federal employees took control of security checkpoints at 420 U.S. airports. With better training and more advanced equipment, these agents are expected to screen passengers more thoroughly than ever before. But that doesn't necessarily mean longer delays, says Traveler Editor in Chief Keith Bellows. Here, Bellows talks about what to expect, how travelers can help ease gridlock, and more.
How long has the new security plan been in the works?
Plans started right after 9/11. This new system is an amazing mobilization effort because they had to recruit and train so many people. Only 15 percent of the Transportation Security Administration's force made the cut after background checks and other tests. So these are workers of a higher quality. The pay is higher, and this is a job that a lot of people can take pride in doing.
What will airports be like this Thanksgiving?
The lines will be long but not as long as last year. Airport officials promise to move people through security within ten minutes, but I'm a little skeptical of that. In addition to being more vigilant due to this new system and such factors as the recently released videotape from Osama bin Laden, these new agents are trying to be polite and judicious. It's very difficult to balance those two things. But I've seen it happen in airports that rolled out this new system two months ago.
Where can we expect the biggest delays?
When I recently visited Knoxville, Tennessee, it took much longer to get through airport security than when I've flown from Washington, D.C., or New York. At smaller airports, agents are pushing fewer people through and have more time on their hands. So they can be more vigilant. When you have to move a high volume of travelers through an airport like JFK in New York, there's no time to lollygag. But the level of security is not appreciatively different between, say, an airport in Columbus, Ohio, and an airport in Washington, D.C. Overall, these new agents have had 60 hours of classroom training and 40 hours of hands-on training. They know what to look for and they can more easily spot red flags. So it's feasible that they'll be able to keep the lines moving. But don't count on a quick and easy trip.
How can travelers help keep the lines moving?
The less you have with you, the better. Obviously don't carry a knife or anything that looks like a knife. Don't carry change, keys, or anything else that's metal. Don't carry wrapped packages; you might have to unwrap them. Take your shoes off and put them on the belt. Don't wait to be asked. Just be sensible.
How far in advance should you be at the airport before your flight takes off, and is it too late to get a decent rate on a Thanksgiving flight?
If you go two hours early you're going to wait. But if you don't go that early you could miss your flight. This year it's probably better to be cautious. Get to the airport two hours before your flight takes off, bring a book, and be prepared to chill out. It's a lot better than missing the plane because you might not get on a later flight. Five million people are expected to fly this year, an increase of six percent over last year. But there will be fewer flights. If you don't have your ticket yet, you better buy it now. Many fare sales end Friday. But, for example, America West's Thanksgiving sale has been extended and you don't have to buy your ticket in advance. The rates are slightly higher than they were last week, but they're still pretty good. Through November 29, you can buy a ticket to fly round-trip in the U.S. or Canada from $147.
Will the kinks be worked out by Christmas?
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