Relearning to Pack for Air Travel

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Whatever your final destination, your next airplane trip will begin in your bedroom. Last week's federal takeover of baggage screening means travelers need to relearn how to pack their bags — and plan everything from the layout of their suitcases to the sizes of the books they take.

The new procedures, carried out by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), require that all checked bags be screened for explosives. (Before Sept. 11, fewer than 5% of bags were searched for bombs.) On the surface, most of the nation's 442 airports look largely the same as they did before the Dec. 31 deadline, and much of the bomb screening will be done as it was previously — out of the sight of passengers. The security checkpoints — where passengers walk through metal detectors and put their carry-ons into X-ray machines — won't change.

The new requirements include putting bags through the huge explosive-detection-system (EDS) machines that travelers have seen at U.S. airports for years. But for the first time on a wide scale, checked bags will also be opened and hand-searched by a TSA employee or examined with the help of an explosive-trace-detection device, which often requires opening the bag as well. In addition, the TSA is using bomb-sniffing dogs and a system called bag matching, which actually does nothing to detect explosives but merely makes sure that if a passenger misses a flight, his or her bag will be held.

The TSA does offer travelers advice on navigating the new security system. Its suggestions include not locking your bag, since the TSA will break the lock if it has to; not packing any food or beverages (chocolate in particular can mimic the characteristics of explosives in the EDS machines); putting shoes on top so that they can be removed and searched easily; spreading books out and not stacking them on top of one another (stacked books are too dense for the EDS to "see" through and might trigger an alert); and putting all sharp items in a checked bag, not a carry-on.

The advice of most travel experts boils down to two words: Ziploc bags. If you don't want a TSA employee handling your intimate apparel and your toothbrush, put them in a sealable clear plastic bag. The fastidious may want to put everything — individually — in clear plastic bags. And those who value their belongings need to make a complete list of items and their value, because the TSA does not yet have a formal policy for handling claims of damage or theft, although it does have a complaint line (866-289-9673).

The other new requirement: patience. The thousands of TSA employees, who can be identified by their white shirts and TSA emblems, are still learning how to work the system. Once airline travel begins to pick up again, the new security system will face stiffer challenges and possibly longer lines. My advice: take less stuff. A lot less. can help you navigate bag checks