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Originally published December 26, 2009 at 9:02 PM | Page modified December 27, 2009 at 9:27 AM

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New rules keep plane passengers in seats

After the terrorism attempt Friday on a Northwest Airlines flight, federal officials Saturday imposed a new layer of restrictions on travelers that could lengthen lines at airports and limit the ability of international passengers to move about an airplane.

The New York Times

After the terrorism attempt Friday on a Northwest Airlines flight, federal officials Saturday imposed a new layer of restrictions on travelers that could lengthen lines at airports and limit the ability of international passengers to move about an airplane.

Among other steps being imposed, passengers on international flights coming to the United States apparently will have to remain in their seats for the last hour of a flight without any personal items on their laps. Overseas passengers will be restricted to only one carry-on item aboard the plane, and domestic passengers will probably face longer security lines.

The restrictions, once again, will change the routine of air travel, which has undergone an upheaval since the September 2001 terrorist attacks and three attempts at air terrorism since then.

Travelers at airports around the world began experiencing heightened screening in security lines. On one flight, from Newark Airport, flight attendants kept cabin lights on for the entire trip instead of dimming them for takeoff and landing.

Airline-industry executives said the new steps would complicate travel as vacationers return home from Christmas trips and could cause travelers to cancel plans for flights in 2010.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which governs security at airports and on airplanes in the United States, had no comment on the changes.

Two foreign airlines — Air Canada and British Airways — disclosed the changes in notices on their Web sites. The airlines said the new rules had been implemented by government security agencies, including the TSA.

"Among other things," the statement in Air Canada's Web site read, "during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps."

The suspect in Friday's attempt, identified as Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 23, tried to ignite his incendiary device in the final hour of the flight while the plane was descending toward the Detroit airport.

On its Web site, American Airlines said the TSA had ordered new measures for flights departing from foreign locations to the United States, including mandatory screening of all passengers at airport gates during boarding. All carry-on items would be screened at security checkpoints and again at boarding, the airline said. It urged passengers to leave extra time for screening and boarding.

The new restrictions began to be instituted Saturday on flights from Canada and Europe to the United States.

At airport terminals Saturday, travelers recounted the immediate differences they experienced.

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Passengers arriving at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said they were subjected to much stricter security on their journey to Seattle but added they didn't mind the additional scrutiny.

"It was very, very, very strict, but they have to do it," said Asefash Abebe, a Seattle resident who spent the holidays with family in Ethiopia and changed planes in Frankfort, Germany. "They are doing it to protect us."

On her flights, she said, every person's carry-on luggage was searched by hand.

Mahesh Putta, who flew in from Amsterdam, also said carry-on luggage allowed on board his flight was carefully searched.

Additionally, he said, Delta Air Lines personnel said at the beginning of the flight that passengers would not be allowed to leave their seats during the final hour of the flight.

"They announced it, and they enforced it," he said.

But according to TSA employees at Sea-Tac, yesterday was just a regular Saturday. Travel was light and no additional explosive sniffing dogs were called in, according to two TSA employees who declined to give their names.

Although passengers arriving from Frankfurt International Airport passed speedily through U.S. customs at Kennedy Airport in New York, they said that in Germany the security was intensified.

"I really was surprised," Eva Clesle said, adding that officials had inspected backpacks by opening "every single zip."

Jennifer Allen encountered tougher security on her way from Amsterdam to Detroit. Her Northwest Airlines flight was on the same route disrupted by the attack a day earlier.

"They patted you down really well," said Allen, 41, an automotive engineer from Shelby Township, Mich. "It wasn't just a quick rub, it was a slow pat. They went through everything in your bags, went through the pockets in your pants, the pockets of your coat."

Sarabjit Dhillon, 35, of Sterling Heights, Mich., was returning to Detroit from a visit to India. Even her three young children got a pat-down.

"They had to open each and every item. They didn't tell us why they were doing it, they just said the United States wanted them to do it, to check everything," she said.

The incident on the flight from Amsterdam is a reminder that securing U.S. airports is only part of the solution, said Elaine Dezenski, who until recently was managing director of the Global Security Initiative at Interpol and also used to work for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"More and more, it's not about what happens in the U.S. airports, it's what's happening outside the U.S. and how the system can or cannot be infiltrated," she said.

Passengers flying to the United States from London Heathrow Airport said they received text messages informing them they could carry only one piece of hand baggage onto the plane.

The big U.S. airlines all declined to talk about the new rules. The new rules don't affect Southwest Airlines because it flies only domestically, spokesman Paul Flaningan said.

The TSA, created after the 2001 terrorist attacks, has emergency power to impose restrictions on air travel without consulting the airlines. Its steps have undergone modification in the past, however.

After the 2001 attacks, passengers bound for or leaving Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., were not allowed to leave their seats for the first and last 30 minutes of a flight. The restriction was lifted in 2005.

Passengers still have to remove their shoes before entering screening machines, a step instituted at many airports and subsequently made mandatory after Richard Reid, the so-called shoe bomber, tried to blow up an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001 by igniting explosives in his shoes.

Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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