Washington For the millions of Americans who fly, patience will be at a premium today as the airlines begin a more intrusive and time-consuming check-in. Delays are inevitable as luggage is scrutinized even more closely for explosives.
Travelers are being urged by the airlines to call before leaving home and ask what time they need to arrive; some airlines are advising customers to be there at least two hours early. And Continental Airlines said all bags must be checked at least a half-hour before flight time.
The airlines had until today to meet a deadline set in law for checking all bags for dangerous materials. Passengers could anticipate seeing their belongings put through detection machines or passed by bomb-sniffing dogs. In some instances, luggage was to be searched by hand.
Because of a shortage of explosive-detection equipment, airlines also planned to match baggage with passengers so that no bag would be loaded that isn't accompanied by a passenger.
"Hope for the best, plan for the worst," advised David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Assn., an advocacy group. "And I don't think the worst is going to be so bad. We're not predicting the huge lines we were worried about."
On the eve of the changeover, airline security experts said they thought the length of lines at airports would depend at least in part on how many passengers decide to check their luggage. Carry-on luggage, already inspected at check-in, is not affected by the new security changes.
"We're very hopeful we will not see chaos," said Carol Hallett, president of the Air Transport Assn., the trade group for the major airlines.
The Bush administration, acknowledging the transition could be difficult, asked passengers to be patient.
"I'm not sure that anyone really has a crystal ball that can determine how long those delays will be, but I think today passengers are willing to accept a modicum of inconvenience given the safety and security of the air travel," Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said on CBS' "The Early Show."
"And I think in today's world, patience is a new form of patriotism," he said.
Stempler said the threat of major delays likely was averted when airlines were told they only needed to match bags with a passenger on the first leg of a flight. A second match is not required if the passenger connects to a new plane.
That provision was denounced by Democrats in Congress, among others, with Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, saying it amounts to "an Achilles' heel in the security system."
There may be other delays at boarding gates, however. If a passenger fails to show up after checking luggage, a plane's takeoff might be postponed while airline employees remove the bag from the cargo hold.
"It's not unusual to be delayed 20 or 30 minutes for a variety of reasons," Stempler said. "I don't think passengers will experience anything extraordinary."