- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

U.S. officials yesterday said it is safe to fly, even as the British government imposed new rules banning IPods, computers and most carry-on baggage on all flights from the United Kingdom.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said there is no evidence linking the foiled terror plot in England to “any plan to initiate activity inside the United States,” and that his department is looking at ways to “reduce any additional inconvenience.”

Domestic air travelers can still carry on electronic devices and bags, but are barred from bringing any liquids, such as beverages or lotions, under rules that began after British authorities on Thursday arrested 24 Muslims suspected of planning to blow up airliners with liquid explosives.

Any changes to the security procedures would not be “earth shattering,” Mr. Chertoff said at a press conference yesterday at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. “We’re going to move to try to make this as simple and as easy as possible, as quickly as possible.”

Security officials say they expect the no-liquid rule in the United States to be relaxed within days rather than weeks, depending on when all suspects involved in the plot to blow up 10 airplanes traveling from Britain to the United States are arrested.

“People ought to feel safe about traveling because of all the precautions we’re taking,” said Frances Fragos Townsend, President Bush’s homeland security adviser.

The Transportation Security Administration’s liquid ban is designed to prevent terrorists from smuggling aboard items that can be transformed into explosives. It does allow baby formula, which must be presented for inspection at the checkpoint, prescription medicines that match the passenger’s name and essential nonprescription medicines.

Other rules vary from airline to airline and destination.

In addition to liquids, the British ban on carry-on baggage and electronic equipment applies to all outbound flights but not all inbound ones. British Airways bans carry-on baggage from the United States to the United Kingdom, but U.S. airlines do not.

“If your destination is the UK, you fly by American rules, but if you’re connecting to another flight in the UK you have to fly by UK rules,” a Homeland Security official said.

However, Continental Airlines is not accepting carry-on luggage. It is lifting its fees to check a third bag for free.

The arrests led the Bush administration to put the United States on its highest threat alert for flights headed to the United States from the United Kingdom. Additionally, all other flights were raised to the second-highest alert level.

Because the airlines were unable to educate the public in time about the changes, passengers were forced to remove liquid items from carry-on luggage before boarding flights.

One airport official said expensive cosmetics and bottles of wine and whiskey were confiscated by screeners and gate agents.

“It broke my heart,” the official said after watching one couple dispose of six bottles of Johnny Walker Black Label scotch.

Federal air marshals are also subject to the searches and struggled to maintain their undercover status, hoping the gate agents would not notice they were carrying handcuffs, leg cuffs, extra ammunition magazines, a baton and other items essential to protecting aircraft from terrorists.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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