International Flyers Report Extra Security, More Delays

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Tom Pennington / Getty

If several dozen passengers arriving from overseas at Washington's Dulles International Airport on Tuesday were any measure, new foreign-airport security procedures have so far produced a mixed bag of amped-up searches and scans, delays of between 15 minutes and two hours on flights — and doubts about whether the new round of protections will work.

According to passengers arriving from Amsterdam, where Nigerian "undie bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab sneaked through security, a new, second checkpoint at the gate included a magnetometer, body searches and checks of all carry-on luggage, pushing takeoff an hour past its scheduled time. "I've never seen it like this," said Agne Kveslyte, a Lithuanian student. "They were opening up really tiny items I had, even my wallet." Once on the plane, passengers were not allowed to congregate near the lavatories or pass between different sections of the plane.

Passengers arriving from other destinations reported at least some extra security, such as pat-downs or second checkpoints at their departure gates. Coming from Paris, Laurent Mellier said he passed through "two [security] checkpoints instead of one, but nobody was complaining. The only complaint was that it was a very big line. But the staff was very professional. And everybody understands." At the same time, Mellier said the extra scrutiny did not make him feel significantly safer.

Oleg Martens, a passenger arriving from London's Heathrow Airport who flies internationally up to 12 times a year, described his experience as his worst encounter with security. Passengers on his flight went through three checkpoints in all, including full-body pat-downs and carry-on items being emptied out and picked through "in plain sight of everyone," Martens said. "It's starting to look like trying to get into Israel."

Skepticism accompanied annoyance for another traveler coming from London. "I could dream up a dozen different ways to do bad things, and I just don't see how they could stop them all," said Frank Filardi. "Basically, they can figure out what the media, the Congressmen and the Members of Parliament are going to beat them up about if they let it happen, and they focus on that. I just try to stay mindful and keep an eye on my fellow passengers," he said, echoing the theme of in-flight vigilance that thwarted Abdulmutallab on Christmas morning.

Other passengers also gave mixed reviews to the tighter security. One woman who declined to give her name said she'd had her knitting needles taken from her for the first time in 25 years of traveling. But Peter Gruder said that two security checkpoints failed to find an oversize bottle of liquid that a checkpoint of German guards in Munich had found and allowed him to keep. Tony Williams, an American arriving from Qatar, said flying first class had put him in an expedited lane through security after connecting from an airport in Laos with "shockingly low security."

It appears that foreign security officials have yet to fully implement the U.S.'s new Transportation Security Administration rules regarding passengers from global hot spots. Under the new regulations, which were announced on Jan. 3, any passenger traveling through or from Pakistan or one of 13 other nations that are "state sponsors of terrorism" or "countries of interest" should be flagged for extra security checks before boarding a flight to the U.S. Yet Ahmed Khan, who passed through Doha, Qatar, on his way to the U.S. from Pakistan, said that security in Doha was tight but not abnormally so. Every traveler underwent a pat-down, and carry-on baggage was checked at random, said Khan, but "this is nothing unusual."

On the whole, travelers see a need for the beefed-up security, despite their concerns about its efficacy and sustainability. "I think a lot of the security measures that show up after something happens are kind of just to make people feel better," said a woman who travels frequently and went through "a little bit more [security] than usual" at Paris' Charles de Gaulle International Airport. "If I were a terrorist, I wouldn't plan an attack for the day after someone else's, because that would be stupid."

Some passengers noted a mood at security similar to what followed 9/11, only less panicked. "The security is about the same as after 9/11," Filardi said, "but without as much melodrama. After 9/11, they made a big show of guys standing around with assault rifles, but this time it was more businesslike; it all seemed a lot smoother."