Air travel today is synonymous with long lines on top of longer lines, luggage checks, and shoe searches. And that’s under normal circumstances. When the nation is on high alert, security is even tighter.

What can a meeting planner do to keep attendees informed and prepared?

For one, be aware that security will be tighter when the country is under "orange," or high alert, so travelers may want to arrive earlier than normal. During orange alerts, more security guards and law enforcement personnel will be at airports, and there may be additional security screens, such as random vehicle inspections or secondary screening checks, says Ron Sokolov, executive director for customer service at the Transportation Security Administration, Washington, D.C.

If air traffic in January was any indication of the effect of orange alerts, then people have grown accustomed to the new reality. American Airlines saw no major decrease in bookings or jump in cancellations because of the December/January code orange, says Tim Wagner, American spokesman. Delta Air Lines experienced an increase compared to January 2003 traffic.

The other good news is that the TSA, airports, and airlines have made enhancements to reduce delays and improve the flow of human traffic.

"We strive for consistency at all the airports we provide security at," says Sokolov, so that travelers know what to expect at the more than 400 U.S. airports serviced by TSA. For example, TSA is looking to consolidate all security checks to the initial screening area, eliminating additional inspection at the gates.

The "double walk through" is another improvement that’s intended to pick up the pace. If a passenger sets off the metal detector at the checkpoint, he or she can remove the objects and walk back through instead of being flagged for secondary screening.

TSA is also planning to introduce a "Trusted Traveler" program that would allow fliers who meet security requirements to pass through screening more promptly. The program would be voluntary, and applicants for a trusted traveler card would go through advance screening. Details have not been worked out yet, says Sokolov.

To speed things up, airlines now offer alternatives to ticket counter check-in lines, allowing customers to get boarding passes and check bags curbside as well as at self-service kiosks. Some airlines permit customers who are not checking bags to skip on-site check-in altogether by getting their boarding passes over the Internet.

Tips for Travelers
Planners can help attendees get to their meetings on time by passing along the following air travel tips, compiled from various sources, including the Airport Transportation Authority, TSA, and Ron Sipes, account development manager at American Airlines, who recently led a session on the subject at the Professional Convention Management Association’s meeting in January in Indianapolis.

  • Arrive on time. Without baggage, the suggested arrival time for a domestic flight is 60 minutes before takeoff. With checked baggage, it’s 90 minutes. Get there two hours early for an international flight. This is flexible depending on the time of day and airport. Generally, security lines are longer during peak travel times—6:30–9:30 a.m. and 4:30–7 p.m.—so plan accordingly.

  • Know how to pack. Passengers are allowed one carry-on bag and one personal item (purse, computer, backpack, etc.). In your carry-on, don’t pack prohibited items (see for a list). Keep in mind that security agents will break open locks if they need to, and they aren’t liable for damages if it’s done for security purposes.

  • Be ready at security. Passengers should have their boarding passes and identification in hand. Also, wear slip-on shoes and pack all metal objects (keys, change, jewelry, etc.) in your carry-on. Finally, laptops must be taken out of cases and coats must come off (suit jackets and blazers are OK).

—Dave Kovaleski CAPPS II: Will Your Name Become Their Name? It won’t be long before airlines are required to hand over the names of people riding on their planes. The Department of Homeland Security is working on a screening system called the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System, or CAPPS II, which is designed to reduce the number of people who are misidentified as potential threats. Airlines will be required to hand over lists of all passengers so that names can be processed through the CAPPS II system, which conducts a risk assessment of each individual by checking names against commercial and government databases. Fliers will be color-coded based on their background checks. CAPPS II was set to begin testing in the spring, with implementation by summer. That schedule was in question at press time because the Congressional General Accounting Office found that the DHS had failed to achieve seven of eight criteria established by Congress for the program to move forward. The program also has raised some concerns. The Business Travel Coalition is petitioning Sens. John McCain 3rd, D-Ariz., and Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., chairmen of the Congressional Transportation Committee, to hold a hearing on CAPPS II. Kevin Mitchell, BTC chairman, says the group isn’t opposed to CAPPS II, it just feels that there hasn’t been sufficient debate on the system or the subject of privacy. "The process seems to be lacking," says Mitchell. —Dave Kovaleski