What to expect at the airport

If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s how quickly travel can change — and 2010 is proving to be no different. After last year’s December 25 bombing attempt on board a Detroit-bound flight, new security procedures seemed to appear overnight. New technology and fees weren’t far behind — and even pets and snack foods became subjects of debate.

And in recent weeks, travellers flying to or through the U.S. have been faced with an invasion of their privacy — and a score of protests against pat-downs and body scanners.

Overall, 2010 was a confusing year. Here’s a quick look at what you can expect if you’re flying the “friendly skies”.

Yes, you can carry on

Worried about packing light? Here’s some good news: on April 8, Transport Canada fully lifted its ban on carry-on luggage for U.S.-bound flights. Passengers are allowed to bring two pieces of carry-on luggage on board — but get out the measuring tape because size restrictions still apply. Anything larger than 23 cm x 40 cm x 55 cm (9″ x 16″ x 22″) will have to be checked.

Of course, there are a few exceptions — or additions, in this case. Travellers can also bring a laptop bag, small purse or camera bag. Medical equipment, musical instruments, pets, diaper bags, canes, walkers and other “life sustaining items” are also allowed, and you can bring on any items purchased at the duty-free shop after you’ve been through security. (Read the Info Sheet for more information.)

What about flights within Canada or to international destinations? Those requirements haven’t changed. Depending on your airline, you can still bring a maximum of two carry-on bags per person.

And what’s new in the realm of prohibited packing? Not much. The restrictions on liquids, gels and other prohibited items (like razor blades) are still in place. If you need batteries, they’ll have to go in your carry-on bag, not your checked luggage. (For a complete list of prohibited items, click here.)

Let’s get physical

By now we’ve seen it all — from videos of crying children being subjected to searches to scores of jokes on late night TV and threats from passengers. The protests may be starting to fizzle, but the words “don’t touch my junk” will live on. Passengers in U.S. airports aren’t happy about the new and more “thorough” body searches or “pat downs”, but don’t expect them to disappear anytime soon. Despite pressure on the Obama administration to make amends, media reports warn we won’t likely see any easing of the security requirements until after the holiday rush.

What about in Canada? Canada’s Transport Minister Chuck Strahl recently announced that Canada won’t be implementing the “aggressive” body searches here.

If you do opt for a pat-down, there is some good news. In response to the privacy outcry in the U.S., more major airports across Canada are stepping up efforts to install private areas to shield you from (additional) prying eyes. Many of these areas may be temporary — they’re around to accommodate travellers during the busy holiday season.

Another change: security personnel should be asking passengers if they want to use one of the private areas. If you’re not asked, you can still request one. However, be forewarned that they still aren’t in place in many airports.

Invasion of the body scanners

Will that be an up-close-and-personal pat down or a revealing body scan? If you’re selected for secondary screening, it may not seem like much of a choice.

By now you’ve heard the controversy — and the jokes — about these machines, but they’re not just in the U.S. Many major airports around the world are proud owners of this technology. According to the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), there are currently 36 units in use here — seven of those machines are at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport and six are in Vancouver. You may encounter them in Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Halifax, Moncton, Kelowna, Victoria, Saskatoon, Quebec City, London and Regina.

What’s all the fuss about? The images show the “naked truth” about what’s under travellers’ clothes — including every contour, wrinkle and roll. (Not to mention birth control devices and adult diapers where stronger machines are in use.) Privacy advocates call them a violation of privacy, and critics question whether they’re an effective way to find concealed weapons and bomb-making components.

Another concern is exposure to radiation, though the official word from CATSA is that the low-level radio frequency (RF) energy used here in Canada is “non-evasive” and “safe for human exposure” according to standards set by Health Canada. Furthermore, CATSA notes there’s no danger for pregnant women, people with pacemakers and people with surgical metal implants.

However, not all airports use the same technology. For instance, some experts argue that machines in the U.S. are a little riskier because they use x-ray (rather than RF) technology. Some safety advocates warn that repeated exposure is risky, especially for small children and women in their first trimester.

Regardless of how you feel about them, you might not have to deal with them at all. It’s a misconception that everyone who arrives at the airport will be scanned — it’s only if you’re selected for secondary screening that you’ll have to choose. The scans aren’t mandatory — yet.

The search is on

These days, travellers and their baggage are facing more scrutiny at the airport. Like it or not, new directives on both sides of the border mean that any bag or any person that look suspicious can be subject to searches. That means more people being selected for secondary screening (like pat-downs or body scans) and closer inspection of their travel documents. Don’t be surprised if you come across random searches of your luggage, purse or even your wallet.

And if you’re in a U.S. airport, you’ll soon see more agents swabbing luggage and passengers’ hands to check for traces of explosive chemicals. In fact, you should see more security personnel wherever you travel. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, it’s up to the Canadian government and governments around the world to have sufficient staff to cope with the new procedures ahead of busy travel seasons. Luckily, the summer peak travel period didn’t see many hassles, but holiday travel could be another story.

What about luggage screening? In 2010, the TSA poured millions of dollars of additional funds into many U.S. airports to improve the screening of checked baggage too — all the more reason to pack smart.

The company you keep

Even travellers who don’t look or act suspicious might be screened because of their passports. Thanks to last year’s TSA directive, if your trip takes you to (or through) any nation that’s known to support terrorism, you can be pulled aside for further screening before flying to the U.S. The same rule applies if one of those countries issued your passport.

Which locations are we talking about? The TSA’s website doesn’t offer specifics, but the Department of Homeland security has named Syria, Sudan, Iran and Cuba in past reports. Of course, the list of “countries of interest” is much longer, and likely includes some countries in the Middle East and North Africa. (For more information, see the TSA’s statement.)

If you think this issue might affect you, check with the embassy or consulate before you travel.

Pets on planes?

Small dogs and cats can fly in the cabin… for now. Last July, Air Canada reversed its ban on pets in the cabin, and this February, WestJet announced that it’s keeping its pet policies in place.

However, if you’re planning on travelling with your pet — or if you have breathing problems, pet allergies or asthma — you may want to keep your eyes peeled for the latest developments. Both the Lung Association and Canadian doctors continue their calls to ban pets on planes, and three allergy sufferers have even taken their cases to court. As a result, the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) recently ruled that passengers with allergies should get the same consideration and opportunity for accommodations as passengers with disabilities. The CTA is currently reviewing airlines’ policies regarding pets, and trying to decide how to meet the needs of passengers with allergies.

The health concern may even cross borders. While pet bans don’t exist in many countries, international airlines are beginning to take note — especially in the wake of recent criticism of Air Canada in the February issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal. (Read more about the editorial here.)

Should pet owners worry? New pet-friendly airlines and services may step up to fill the gap.

Nut-free zones

In other allergy news, this year Air Canada was ordered to create nut-free buffer zones to accommodate travellers with peanut allergies. The company recently submitted a proposal to the CTA regarding how much space it will allow for these zones — which could be as little as a few seats to as much as a few rows. (While peanuts haven’t been served on flights in years, passengers can still buy snacks with almonds and cashews — enough to trigger potentially dangerous reactions.)

Will the changes be enough? That’s for the CTA to decide. Like passengers with disabilities, passengers with allergies will have to give airlines at least 48 hours’ notice of their requirements. (Read the full story here.)

Tips to smooth the way

If you’re travelling soon, here are some ways to help keep your cool:

Keep an eye on the news. Security procedures can change with little notice. Media outlets usually pick up on the stories, but visit your airline and airport’s websites for the latest official advice.

Watch the weather. Think long line-ups and security issues will be your biggest concerns? Storms and winter weather are more likely to cause major hassles like cancelations and delays. Watch the weather and check in with your airline to keep tabs on any issues that could affect your travels.

Pack right. Read up on restrictions before you pack and follow them to the letter, especially if you’re flying to (or through) a U.S. airport.

Arrive early. Give yourself plenty of time to deal with security procedures, bad weather and other extra hassles. Currently, experts recommend arriving at least three hours before an international flight.

Keep your luggage by your side. This warning isn’t just about theft, and it applies to other modes of transportation as well. Officials will treat unattended baggage as a potential security threat.

Be patient. Keeping a level head (not to mention your temper) will go a long way to making the whole process a little easier on everyone. Expect to wait in lines, and have something to keep everyone occupied (like a book or magazine) if there’s a delay.

We wish we could promise things are going to get easier, but we’re likely to see more changes and more news in the months ahead. For now, the best thing you can do is be informed.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ www.livestills.de

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