Get ready for this: random wanding of hitherto unexamined body parts; syringe searches; interminable landing-pattern hours spent with hands in full view and no foreign objects in your lap — including that good book you were about to finish. This is what Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab has brought us, but it’s not all his fault. It has simply, quietly, come to this.
In the wake of the terrorism attempt Friday on a Northwest Airlines flight, federal officials on Saturday imposed new restrictions on travelers that could lengthen lines at airports and limit the ability of international passengers to move about an airplane.
The government was vague about the steps it was taking, saying that it wanted the security experience to be “unpredictable” and that passengers would not find the same measures at every airport — a prospect that may upset airlines and travelers alike.
But several airlines released detailed information about the restrictions, saying that passengers on international flights coming to the United States will apparently have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. It was not clear how often the rule would affect domestic flights.
Airline travel has traveled a long route from the days of white-gloved passengers (remember legroom?) and spiffy stewardesses asking if you’d like coffee, tea or milk. Most of us can recall the unlamented lunches and snacks on trays — although the salad dressing was spicy and the ice cream was good. Almost everyone can remember getting on a plane without first removing your shoes. And although we now stock 3-ounce containers of everything cosmetic and medicinal under the sun, everyone can recall, with a little effort, the day when you could bring a bottle of water from home in your purse.
All of the changes have now become routine, and hardly worth a grumble. Routine is reassuring. New ones will slide into the mix eventually. But it’s that “unpredictable” business that distresses more than a few of us.
The homeland security secretary, Janet Napolitano, said in a statement Saturday that new measures were ‘designed to be unpredictable, so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere.’ She said passengers should proceed with their holiday plans and ‘as always, be observant and aware of their surroundings and report any suspicious behavior or activity to law enforcement officials.’
Here we are, with the back-zip boots, the 3-ounce plastic containers, the 10-minute book and the anticipation of no bathroom privileges on 90-minute flights, and we’re supposed to remain observant while expecting not to know what to expect?
Thanks a lot, Umar.