With near pre-pandemic levels of air travelers expected to fly this Christmas holiday, three bins filled with drinks, big cans of hair spray, sunscreen and other items were displayed at Newark Liberty International Airport as a cautionary example.
The bins were filled in just an hour with prohibited items found in travelers’ carry-on bags by Transportation Security Administration screeners. Think of each one of them as a speed bump to getting through security and on to your flight.
TSA officials offered some advice to avoid that speed bump, as almost as many people who flew before the coronavirus pandemic are expected to fly this Christmas travel period. Passengers also can use a new feature to reserve a virtual space in the TSA security line in Terminal A, which was started by the Port Authority officials in time for the Thanksgiving rush.
Here’s what you need to know before flying this Christmas.
You’re not going to be alone.
For the introverted travelers who enjoyed the reduced crowds last year, that’s over.
TSA, airport and airline officials are predicting passenger volumes close to pre-COVID-19 levels.
“We’re getting real close to where we were before the pandemic. We’re expecting on the busiest days to hit approximately 70,000 passengers through our checkpoints at Newark Airport,” said Thomas Carter, TSA federal security director.
Newark Airport’s largest carrier, United Airlines, is expecting “more than double the number of fliers this year” compared to 2020, said David Gonzalez, a United spokesman.
“Systemwide, we expect around 8 million people to fly United during the year-end holiday travel period, December 16 – January 3. That is about 87% of the number of travelers we flew in 2019,” he said. “At Newark we’re expecting to fly over 75,000 passengers on the busiest day, which is expected to be Thursday, Dec. 23, to more than 120 destinations globally.”
Passengers will see traveler volumes that are similar to Thanksgiving, said James Gill, the Port Authority’s general manager at Newark Airport.
“It will be very similar and probably a little more than Thanksgiving,” he said. “We’re still monitoring it, but we expect those volumes and on certain days, a little more.”
Start pre-trip prep at home and online.
How should travelers avoid trouble before they hit the tarmac? Check the TSA and Port Authority’s official websites for information to prepare, officials said.
At a press event at Newark Airport on Wednesday, TSA officials reiterated the rules and offered some tips for new fliers and those who haven’t traveled since the pandemic started.
“We see new travelers during the holiday that aren’t experienced, they’re traveling with children and a little bit stressed,” Carter said. “We encourage them to take a moment at home to check the website and familiarize themselves with the rules and regulations.”
Many of the oversized toiletries that were confiscated from carry-on bags could have been put in checked baggage by following the TSA’s “What Can I Bring” guide on the website, he said.
Don’t wait until you’re at the airport to put prohibited items in checked bags. Do it at home to avoid delays, Carter said.
A travelers tips informational website is also offered by the Port Authority.
Skip the line at Terminal A.
With the ongoing construction of the new $2.71 billion Terminal A to replace the current building starting next year, Port Authority officials started the Virtualine program during the Thanksgiving travel period. It allows travelers flying from Terminal A to reserve a spot for expedited TSA screening, Gill said.
Construction has closed the A-1 concourse in the existing Terminal A, including the TSA checkpoints.
Virtualine, “was one mechanism to help,” Gill said. Newark is one of the first airports in the country to offer this service, he said. It was developed in house by the Port Authority technical staff.
“It’s a free product to allow them to enter their flight number (online) and reserve a space for a 15-minute window when (the passenger) wants to enter in that queue,” Gill said. “It allows them to expedite that travel process for any airline operating in Terminal A.”
Terminals B and C have a commercial program called Clear for expedited TSA screening.
“We’re trying to balance those traffic loads, this is a great tool to do that,” he said. “Right now it’s a pilot program in Terminal A and we’ll evaluate the process, the effectiveness and the ability to expand it appropriately.”
Unwrap those gifts.
Bringing a holiday gift on your trip? Don’t wrap it or a TSA officer will have to unwrap it to inspect the package at the checkpoint, Carter said.
A better alternative is using gift boxes that with a lid can be opened, or a gift bag, he said.
Bringing food that can be poured, spread or smeared is also subject to the TSA’s regulations prohibiting more than 3 ounces of liquid in carry-on bags. That delicious homemade gravy, cranberry sauce and other goodies should go in the checked bag, officials said.
What else to know?
The standard advice of arriving at the airport at least two hours ahead for a domestic flight and three hours for an international flight still applies, Carter said.
Parents traveling with small children should hold on to their children’s travel documents, but present their own documents first to TSA officers, and then the child’s boarding pass, Carter said.
Since body scan equipment is highly sensitive, travelers should remove everything from their pockets to avoid triggering an alarm which will cause a delay.
Take all electronic devices out of carry-on bags and place them on top of the bag, including laptops, cameras and games, Carter said.
Bring a spare face mask in case the elastic straps breaks on disposable masks. Masks are required under federal rules. Travelers not wearing a mask will be reminded by TSA officers, who will offer a free mask to those who lack one. But unmasked travelers will not be allowed to enter a checkpoint, Carter said.
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Larry Higgs may be reached at [email protected].