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What tighter airport security means for you

A Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) travel advisory stands

A Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) travel advisory stands at a security check point at Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Monday, Dec. 28, 2009. Delta Air Lines Inc., American Airlines parent AMR Corp. and UAL Corp. fell in New York trading as a terrorism attempt on a Christmas Day flight to Detroit highlighted potential aviation risks. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg Credit: Bloomberg/George Frey

Marc Abbott flies about 40 times a year for his law practice in Long Beach, so he books flights after 9 a.m. to avoid the morning airport rush.

Yet Eric Kaler, Stony Brook University provost and frequent flier, has his own strategy. He won't book the day's last flight. "If that flight is canceled, you're stranded till the next day."

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Figuring out techniques to cope with the increased security and confusion at airports has become the obsession of business and leisure travelers. Should you pay the extra fees to check bags and skip the carry-ons? Avoid wearing a belt that might trigger a metal detector? How do you beat the competing crowds to get on another flight if yours is delayed or - curses! - canceled?

"Pretty soon you're going to have to fly naked if you want to be safe," said Kevin Schatzle, who is on the advisory board of Suspect Detection Systems, an Israeli company that makes airport protection technology.

It hasn't come to that yet, but one thing is certain: Fliers need more time than ever to navigate through check-in lines and security screenings since the thwarted Christmas Day plane bombing attempt.

While the federal government promises to tighten security at all domestic airports, experts say the real changes will come overseas.

Marie-Helen Maras, a security expert and criminal justice professor at Farmingdale State College, said the emphasis will be on screening passengers coming from 14 countries the U.S. government has linked to terrorism.

"There's cause for concern but not for hysteria," said Maras, a former Navy security investigator. "If we want to be safe on a plane, we'll need to get used to being irritated or inconvenienced."

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If you're planning to fly soon, here is a guide to what you can expect at the airport - and pointers to help you get through it with less hassle.

BEFORE YOU LEAVE HOME

1. GO ONLINE. Check the TSA and State Department Web sites - www.tsa.gov and travel.state.gov - to make sure you comply with all the latest regulations and advisories, says Schatzle. "Now they're going to be crazier with everything that's going on," agrees Penny Cuomo, owner of Sunset Travel in Bellmore and vice president of the Long Island Travel Agents Association.

2. CHECK DOCUMENTATION. Make sure the name on your reservation exactly matches what's on your identification. Although small differences shouldn't be problematic right now, consistency will help minimize your time in line. The TSA's Secure Flight program, phasing in this year, will soon require an exact match, plus extra information, such as your date of birth and gender.

3. CALL AIRLINE. Check for changes in departure and arrival times - but don't be surprised by additional delays. "We'll call three times and airlines tell us, 'It's on time ... on time ... on time,' and then it comes in three hours late," says Bob Howard, a vice president at Delux Transportation, a car service in Port Washington. Howard also warns that an airline's Web site may list one arrival or departure time, while a call center will give conflicting information.

4. PACK UP. Take a carry-on with an extra set of clothes, medicine and some food, especially if you're traveling with children. You'll want it if you face delays and can't get to your checked baggage. "Once that luggage goes, it's a big deal to get it back," Cuomo says. "Then you have to go through security all over again."

5. LEAVE EARLIER. It used to be passengers were advised to arrive at the airport an hour before a domestic flight and two hours before an international one. Now, you should plan to arrive an extra hour early for each to avoid the anxiety of being stuck in a security snafu. "It's better that you're sitting on the other side of security having a cup of coffee waiting for your plane," says Jim Marino, owner of Oyster Bay Travel and president of the Long Island Travel Agents Association.

6. MAKE A PLAN. In the event that anything unexpected occurs, such as an evacuation at an airport, says Schatzle, families should arrange to reconvene at a specific spot if separated. Have a third person, such as Grandma, on standby so everyone can call her to report in that they are OK or to update whereabouts. This is especially important in a foreign airport, he says.

BAGGAGE

The age-old debate continues: check or carry-on? Just as checking bags can cause delays, so can carrying everything on board, says Howard. He knows of passengers who've cut it close, then panicked after being pulled over from security lanes to have their bags searched.

"It used to be as a seasoned traveler you wanted to pack as much as you could into that little bag," says Schatzle. Now it's hard to say whether carry-on or checking is quicker.

If you're checking

Expect to pay. Most airlines now charge passengers $15-$20 each way to check their first piece of luggage - and more for additional or overweight bags. You may be able to save $5 a bag by paying in advance through the airline's Web site.

Arrive on time. Don't tarry getting to the airport, says Maras. "Remember that airlines will refuse to check bags if they come in too close to departure time."

If you have a carry-on

3-1-1 rule. The TSA's basic rule mandates that all liquids and gels be in containers no larger than 3.4 ounces and fit in a single quart-size, zip-top, clear plastic bag - one per passenger. Certain liquids and gels - from cologne to cranberry sauce - are banned altogether from carry-ons.

Pack in layers. Place anything that might be a red flag on the top of the bag so it's easily examined, advises Schatzle. Put underwear and socks on the bottom, "so they're not rummaging through your personals to get to the bottom to check your hairdryer," he says. Maras advises passengers to neatly arrange cables and chargers for iPods and other devices so you don't have wires strewn everywhere.

SECURITY SCREENING

Frequent travelers have learned to be organized in all parts of the trip, including when they line up at security checkpoints. Lauren Shallash, who often travels in her work for the admissions office of Stony Brook University, takes her laptop out of its case and removes her shoes while waiting to go through security so she can quickly place them in a bin.

"If a security guards see you have everything correctly on the X-ray belt with your ticket and ID out, they'll let you go ahead of the people who are still trying to get their things in order," she said.

Other tips:

1. Choose the right line.

"Watch the lines to see what's moving," says Cuomo. "Sometimes the longer line moves faster than the shorter line," she says. "The ones with a lot of kids take a longer time."

If you see someone fumbling for items in pants and jacket pockets, try to get to another line, says attorney Marc Abbott.

2. Be ready. Prepare before it's your turn. If you're wearing a belt, take it off. Take the change and your cell phone out of your pockets. Take off your coat, remove your watch or hair clips or other metal jewelry that might set off a detector. If your shoes have laces, loosen them in anticipation of shoe removal (even better would be to wear slip-ons). Have your children do the same.

3. Speak up. If you have had surgery that resulted in metal rods or plates in your body, alert the security officer. "You must carry documentation that you have this. It has to be from a doctor and notarized," Cuomo says. Medications - such as diabetes needles and supplies - are allowed, but must be screened.

4. Expect more. If you set off the detector, the staff may then use a wandlike detector to check you further.

STAYING ALERT

Several terrorism attempts - including the "shoe bomber" on a 2001 Paris-to-Miami flight - were foiled by flight attendants and passengers.

As soon as you arrive at the airport, be alert for any suspicious activity, says Maras. "Most of us head on to our gate and don't look around," she says. "Our security is at risk and we need to be more vigilant."

Still, how do you find a balance between being aware of unusual behavior and acting paranoid?

What if I'm on a plane and see something unsettling?

Subtly and quietly get ahold of the cabin crew and be as descriptive and specific as possible about what you saw that made you suspicious, says Schatzle. "Say, 'I saw the guy take powder out of his bag and put it in his sock,'" for instance, he says. Then let the staff handle it. "They're trained."

What if I can't leave my seat?

Hit the call bell. Feign having a foreign object in your eye, which will bring the staff person close enough to your face and allow you to whisper, suggests Daniel Bowe, executive vice president of operations at Arrow Security in Bohemia.

What's the best way to stay calm at the airport?

If you are prone to anxiety over the developments in airline safety, the best defense is a good offense, says Kathleen Hall, CEO of The Stress Institute in Atlanta. Memorize one positive affirmation ("I am strong") you can repeat to yourself when you're nervous.

Try loading an iPod with mellow music, memorize a yoga stretch to do if you're stuck on the tarmac. Hall says you also can ask someone close to be reachable by cell phone as you wait for your flight - you'll have peace of mind knowing there's someone you can talk to if you have a problem. If all else fails - eat. Says Hall, "Food is a huge stress reliever."

UNEXPECTED DELAYS

At the gate

If your flight is delayed, you wait. If you're stranded overnight because of an airline problem such as a mechanical difficulty, it's the airline's responsibility to put you up for the night in a hotel and give you a voucher for food, says Marino of Oyster Bay Travel.

"If it's due to weather, they're not responsible by law to do that. Sometimes they'll give you a voucher for lunch if they know it's going to be a long delay." But you can always ask. And, Marino says, if you're polite and patient when you ask, you might have a better outcome.

If you desperately have to get someplace, such as a cruise or a funeral, you can see if one of the airline's partner lines will honor your ticket. If not, you'll have to purchase a ticket for another airline and fight with your original carrier when you get home.

On the tarmac

New federal regulations will soon require that if your plane is delayed for two hours once it's on the tarmac and you're sitting in it, the airline is required to offer you food and water, Marino says. After three hours, the airline has to let you off, he says.

FLIGHT CANCELED?

3 steps to take

1. Get in line at the airline counter, but simultaneously work your cell phone. If you originally booked through a travel agent, call your contact. "We have the availability at our fingertips to book them on another flight," says Cuomo. "Our computers are hooked right to the airlines. Our computers aren't hooked to the Web site like everyone else's."

If you didn't use a travel agent, try to call the airline directly. If you have a laptop, you can also try to get on the airline's Web site to rebook yourself. If none of that works, you'll just have to wait until it's your turn at the counter.

2. Make sure changes to your outbound flight are tied into your original reservation. "If you don't go out on the outbound flight on your ticket, the return flight is canceled automatically. Make sure the return flight stays as is," Cuomo says.

3. If you have to book a flight on a different airline, that's trickier. Make sure you get written proof that your original flight was canceled so that you can get a refund even if your purchase was nonrefundable. "If you change your mind, you're penalized, but if the flight is canceled, you'll get your money back," she says. It can take four to six weeks to get the refund, she says, and even though common sense would suggest that the airline knows its own flight was canceled, it behooves you to have proof, she says.

You'll likely have to pay whatever the fare is for your new airline reservation, Cuomo says. Sometimes the new airline will honor your original ticket, but sometimes they won't, she says.

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