Travelers Poised to Benefit From Relaxed Rules

(The Miami Herald/MCT) —

Just in time for the travel season: somewhat friendlier skies.

In the past several weeks, federal agencies have taken strides to make air travel slightly less miserable for consumers by relaxing rules on the use of electronics in flight, and ushering more people into trusted-traveler programs.

“I think those are big conveniences for people,” said Anne Banas, executive editor of “And those are some of the first changes of that kind that we’ve seen – pro-consumer vs. pro-airline.”

That could mean less hassle in airport security lines and in the air, during this busy travel season, though a storm system bearing down on the East Coast is threatening to add plenty of weather-related worries.

According to a forecast from auto club AAA, 43.4 million Americans are expected to travel – mostly by road – 50 or more miles from home between Wednesday and the Monday after Thanksgiving. That’s a slight drop from last year’s 44 million travelers.

For airline passengers, a few new rules could make the journey more pleasant.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced last month that electronic devices would no longer need to be turned off during takeoff or landing, as long as airlines showed that their planes could safely operate while passengers used their gadgets. So far, carriers, including American Airlines, US Airways, Delta, United, Southwest, JetBlue and Virgin America, have given travelers the go-ahead, at least on some flights.

Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst for consultancy Hudson Crossing,  called electronics use a “nice privilege to have now.

“Especially for parents traveling with children, I think this will be a godsend, because the first few minutes of a flight are probably when kids are the most antsy,” he said.

Before travelers even board a plane, a program that once eased screening rules for a limited number of travelers is growing. The Transportation Security Administration has been expanding its TSA PreCheck program, which gives certain passengers access to expedited screening lines; the agency plans to expand the program even more, going into 2014.

Initially, just those who were invited by participating airlines, at certain airports, were allowed to take advantage of TSA PreCheck, which lets travelers submit detailed information and fingerprints for a background check. In exchange, they usually are able to leave on their shoes, belts and light outerwear, and to keep their laptops and liquids in carry-on bags. Now 100 airports participate, and Southwest and JetBlue have just joined.

People who enrolled in the Customs and Border Protection’s trusted-traveler program could also opt into the TSA version. Travelers 75 and older, and 12 and younger, as well as members of the U.S. military, were also given the OK for expedited screening.

The agency will soon start offering an online application for TSA PreCheck, at a cost of $85 for five years.

Even now, passengers are being randomly selected to go through the expedited lane, because they have already entered their name, gender and date of birth before getting a boarding pass. That allows security officials to check them against lists of travelers who might need extra attention.

Every day, a certain number of people who haven’t opted in to the program are pre-screened and sent to a quicker lane, said Sari Koshetz, a TSA spokeswoman.

“People love it,” she said. “On that day, for that flight, they come to the travel document checker and the checker will see that, verify it, then send them to the ‘happy lane.’ ”

More than 25 percent of travelers go through some kind of expedited TSA screening already.

Koshetz said the programs also have a security benefit. “As we pre-screen people before they get to the checkpoint and know more about them, that allows us to focus more time on people we know less about.”

Frequent business traveler Melissa Good, of Pembroke Pines, Fla., became part of TSA PreCheck after joining Customs’ Global Entry program. She said the experience is great when it works as intended.

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