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Originally published December 29, 2009 at 12:04 AM | Page modified December 29, 2009 at 11:51 PM

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Confused about new air rules? Get in line

Since a Christmas Day terrorist plot on a Detroit-bound jet was foiled, beleaguered travelers again have been beset by confusing, inconsistent rules.

By now, everyone knows the airport drill, its inconveniences offset by its clarity: Take off your shoes, pop your laptop in a tray, have your driver's license ready.

But since a Christmas Day terrorist plot on a Detroit-bound jet was foiled, beleaguered travelers again have been beset by confusing, inconsistent rules.

Could you keep your blanket, as on Continental, or would it be snatched at the end of the flight, as on Lufthansa? Would security measures be visibly unchanged, as they were in Houston, or would passengers be surprised by a careful swabbing of their hands and purses, like those in South Carolina? Would entertainment systems be shut down on international flights, as they were Sunday on JetBlue, or would movies show again, as they did Monday?

"I just wish they'd have something, a list of rules, and stick to it," said Sherri Hemmer, who used the restroom early on her Monday flight from Phoenix to Pittsburgh and then was annoyed to learn that a prohibition against moving around the cabin in the last hour of flight did not apply to her flight.

Passengers on international flights that arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Monday night said they experienced pat-downs as they boarded flights and a hand search of all carry-on bags.

"They took every item out of every one," said Katherine Wimble, a University of Washington graduate student returning from a semester in Denmark. They even opened her umbrella and squished her pillow, she said.

Anna Cimburek, a college student returning from a family visit in London, said it was the most intensive security she'd seen in 25 years of flying.

"If that's what's required to keep us all safe, unfortunately, I guess it's better than nothing," she said.

The extra security led to delays of hours for the two flights — one out of Reykjavik, Iceland, and the other out of London's Heathrow Airport.

In London, passengers went though security and, as they were boarding, were patted down again and their bags searched a second time. Flight attendants then discouraged passengers from moving around, said Stacia Kirby, traveling with her husband and children. Flight attendants, she said, kept saying, "The U.S. won't let us do this; the U.S. won't let us do that."

But Kirby also said onboard measures weren't as strict as some she'd read about. Passengers were allowed to have blankets and use iPods and computers, she said.

For flights originating in the U.S., the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been deliberately vague — and even a little random — about security measures in the past few days, in part to ensure potential attackers do not know what to expect.

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"It keeps them guessing," transportation expert and DePaul University professor Joseph Schwieterman said. By not making public a point-by-point list, he said, federal officials also retain flexibility, enabling them to target responses to certain airports or flights.

"There was criticism after 9/11 that rules could be way too cookbook — not allowing authorities to adapt them to different settings, to different airports," Schwieterman said.

Yet, that careful unpredictability has made life far more confusing and inconvenient for travelers. After Sept. 11, 2001, stark fears were met with complicity and acceptance, but many people now seem to believe rules are more about reaction than protection.

"I think the security checks on the ground are the ones that make the most difference for safety," said Daniel Kim, 36, who arrived with his family at Los Angeles International Airport three hours early for a flight to Frankfurt. "The whole one hour before thing, no getting up, what is that going to help, really? Will it get to a point when we can't get up at all during the flight, or have to raise our hands to go to the bathroom? Where does it end?"

While the new TSA restrictions seem largely confined to international travelers, confusion, delays and angst seemed to spread across the nation in the wake of the thwarted attack on a Northwest Airlines flight.

The anxiety, however, appeared to be particularly intense on flights coming from Canada. Dianne Duncan's trip to Los Angeles from Toronto, for one, involved a 10-hour security wait, four lost bags, a missed flight and rerouting, a thorough search of her belongings, and a full-body pat-down of her and her 5-year-old daughter.

"It was extremely strict," said Duncan, who arrived at the airport at 9:30 a.m. Sunday and wasn't screened until nearly seven hours later.

"Take note: There was no toilet, no water and no food for purchase," she said. "There was one man to screen the men, and one woman to screen the women. There was a full pat-down. It was as if they were specifically searching for something."

Once on board, passengers were not allowed to have anything under the seat, nor could they get up for the last 90 minutes of the flight. After missing a connection, Duncan was rerouted through Houston, where she was offered a hotel; she said she was afraid to leave the secure area.

While most chaos seemed limited to international flights, security checks were far from uniform within the U.S.

In Springfield, Mo., the Rev. Moses Berry, 59, an Eastern Orthodox priest, was patted down between his legs, across his chest and under his robes. But in Philadelphia, Current D'Ignazil, 20, a college sophomore bound for Pittsburgh, barely was acknowledged.

On flights from Milan to New York, people could move freely about the cabin. But on a jet from Acapulco to Chicago, passengers had to stay seated the last hour, even though they were outnumbered by crew members.

One TSA restriction that most annoyed the airlines was an order to shut off in-flight entertainment systems on international flights. Airlines objected, and the TSA apparently relented Sunday night and left the decision to the discretion of airline crews.

The TSA also relaxed rules that had prohibited passengers from leaving their seats, opening carry-on bags and keeping blankets or babies on their laps during the last hour of U.S.-bound flights, according to an official.

Crews were given authority to impose restrictions for shorter periods or not at all, the official said.

Compiled from The New York Times, The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff reporter Linda Shaw

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