CHICAGO — You are now free to move about the cabin. Or not.
After a two-day security clampdown prompted by a thwarted attempt to bomb a jetliner, some airline officials said the in-flight restrictions had been eased. And it was now up to captains on each flight to decide whether passengers can have blankets and other items on their laps or can move around during the final phase of flight.
Confused? So were passengers who flew Monday on one of the busiest travel days of the year.
On some flights, passengers were told to keep their hands visible and not to listen to iPods. Even babies were frisked. But on other planes, security appeared no tighter than usual.
The Transportation Security Administration did little to explain the rules. And that inconsistency might well have been deliberate: What’s confusing to passengers is also confusing to potential terrorists.
“It keeps them guessing,” transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman said.
“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.
The TSA 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 international flights entering the U.S., according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the TSA had not publicly disclosed the change.
Crews were given the authority to impose restrictions for shorter periods or not at all, said the official.
If the objective was to befuddle, then on Monday it was mission accomplished.
An hour before a US Air flight from Manchester, England, to Philadelphia landed, flight attendants removed passengers’ blankets and told them to keep their “hands visible,” said passenger Walt Swanson of Cumbria, England.
Even bathroom visits were affected on some flights.
On Continental Flight 1788 from Cancun, Mexico, to Newark, three airport security agents frisked everyone at the gate, including babies, prompting one to scream loudly in protest. On the plane, crew announced that the toilets would be shut down the last hour of the flight and passengers would not be able eat, drink, or use electronic devices.
The warning that the bathrooms would be shut down led to lines 10 people deep at each lavatory. A demand by one attendant that no one could read anything, either, elicited gasps of disbelief and howls of laughter.
Elsewhere, especially on domestic flights, most passengers said they had not detected security upgrades.
“I honestly didn’t notice a difference, and we didn’t receive any special instructions from the crew,” said James Merling, a 68-year-old doctor who flew from Marquette, Mich., to Boston on Monday.
Lexi Wirthlin, 22, who arrived at Philadelphia on Monday from St. Louis, Mo., said she was warned by friends to expect long lines at airport screening points or other hassles onboard.
“I was expecting it to be intense,” she said. “But it was totally fine.”
However, holiday traveler Sharen Rayburn, of Trion, Ga., said it took two hours to get through security in Denver because guards were checking every bag multiple times.