TSA wants to warn infrequent travelers of recent security measures

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WASHINGTON -- Your famous cranberry sauce: Not allowed onboard unless you've made less than 3.4 ounces of it.

The pie you baked for Thanksgiving dinner: OK if you don't mind risking being delayed for extra screening that could include a closer inspection and testing for explosive residue.

The toy gun you bought your nephew as an early Christmas present: never OK in your carry-on bag.

That snow globe you bought for the family grab bag: OK if it's smaller than a tennis ball and fits with all your other carry-on liquids, creams and gels -- including that cranberry sauce -- in a quart-size plastic bag.

Those are a few things the Transportation Security Administration wants travelers to know before they head to airports for the holidays. TSA officials particularly want to get the word out to infrequent travelers who might not be aware of recent changes to screening procedures.

"Passengers who are prepared for security screening at the checkpoint will help streamline the process for themselves and for other travelers," TSA administrator John S. Pistole told reporters during a press conference today at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Nationwide, TSA expects to screen 24 million passengers traveling around Thanksgiving, he said. TSA is ready for them, he said.

"We understand that holiday travel can be stressful and that a great trip often starts with a great experience at the airport," Mr. Pistole said. "To that end, TSA will be fully staffed for the high volume of passengers this holiday season."

Those who haven't flown recently will find some changes aimed at speeding screening, although long lines can still be expected on peak travel days.

For example, passengers who are under 12 or over 75, who are active members of the military and who are part of flight crews no longer have to remove their shoes and light outer garments.

Passengers who have disabilities, use medical devices or need assistance have a new resource to turn to: the TSA Cares hotline program. Passengers can call 855-787-2227 to speak to an agent who can tell them to expect during screening. In some cases, agents will arrange to meet passengers at security checkpoints to assist them through screening.

Another new program implemented last month at about 30 airports -- including Pittsburgh International -- is aimed at speeding up security screening for frequent travelers invited by major airlines to submit to background checks that qualify them for faster processing and lines that are normally shorter.

"These are passengers that we know more about because they travel frequently and they agree to a risk-assessment that gives us more information about them," said Ann Davis, northeast regional spokeswoman for the TSA.

Those pre-screened passengers won't have to remove shoes and belts and, unlike other passengers, can leave laptop computers and toiletry bags in carry-on bags. Liquid and gel toiletries still must be carried in containers of less than 3.4 ounces each and must be packed together in a clear quart-sized bag.

Passengers in the program still should allow plenty of time at security checkpoints because they still can be randomly selected for full screening, Ms. Davis said.

The Washington Post earlier this month exposed security vulnerabilities that could allow terrorists or others on "no-fly" lists to change codes on boarding passes, allowing themselves access to expedited screening lines.

Mr. Pistole told reporters on Tuesday that TSA is working with airlines to improve encryption of codes on boarding passes and has other protective measures in place.

JoAnn Jenny, spokeswoman for Pittsburgh International Airport, said all holiday travelers should plan to arrive at least 90 minutes before their flights. She said the Wednesday before and Sunday after Thanksgiving will be the airport's busiest days.

Reagan National passenger Linda Kintu, who was about to check in for a flight to San Juan, said she's glad her 6-year-old son Nathan wouldn't have to take off his sneakers to go through security. She said airport screening is a hassle that does little to make her feel safer about flying.

"People who really want to sneak things [onboard] find ways," she said.

Still, it's hard to get contraband past trained screeners like Starlesha Washington and David Keister, transportation security officers at Reagan National.

Last week Mr. Keister detected and confiscated a stun gun disguised as a cell phone. Over the last year, his colleagues detected several guns, hundreds of bullets, grenades and many knives and toy guns in carry-on bags. One screener detected a pair of daggers concealed in a book whose pages had been cut to provide a hiding place.

"You'd be surprised what people try to get through," Ms. Washington said, standing behind a display of items recently confiscated at Reagan National's security checkpoints.

TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said most passengers who bring contraband do so unintentionally. They may have a knife in the pocket of a coat they haven't worn since a fishing trip months ago, for example, she said. Others may not realize that a toy gun can cause a panic, she said.

"Most passengers know what they can bring and what they can't. They don't want to intentionally cause harm or panic," she said. "This is just a paperweight, but that's not what it looks like when you see it on an airplane," she said, holding a grenade-shaped knickknack that had been confiscated at a checkpoint.

Other contraband items arer liquids including water, lotion, maple syrup, sauce, soup and perfume -- except in quantities not exceeding 3.4 ounces and packed together in a single quart-size bag per passenger.

Wrapped gifts are not prohibited, but officials warn that screeners may open them.

Not sure whether something is allowed onboard? Download the "MyTSA" application to your iPad or smartphone and use it to search for everything from aluminum foil to zip ties (both allowed).

For information about the pre-screening program, visit www.tsa.gov/tsa-pre. For more information about prohibited items visit http://www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/prohibited-items. For assistance for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions, call 855-787-2227 toll free or e-mail TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov.

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Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 703-996-9292.


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