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Passengers flying into U.S. face stricter security measures

December 26, 2009 |  3:23 pm

Travelers taking international flights to the United States today faced pat-down searches, new limits on carry-on luggage and more thorough screening at airport checkpoints after a Nigerian man who claimed to have ties to Al Qaeda allegedly tried to bomb a jetliner headed to Detroit.

Federal authorities have called on airlines and airports around the world to tighten security measures, including frisking all passengers headed to the U.S., extra scrutiny of carry-on items and limits on passenger movements during the latter part of a flight.

Umar Abdul Farouk Mutallab, 23, today was charged with attempting to ignite an incendiary device aboard  Northwest Airlines Flight 253. The flight, from Amsterdam, was preparing to land in Detroit on Friday when the incident occurred.  Passengers overpowered the suspect and the Airbus 330, with 290 people on board, landed safely.

After the incident, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advised airline passengers that they would see additional screening measures related to domestic and U.S.-bound flights and advised travelers to report any suspicious activity or behavior to law enforcement officials.

The new rules limit on-board activities by passengers and crew members while in U.S. airspace. Among other things, passengers must remain in their seats during the last hour of the flight and cannot have access to their carry-on items or place any personal belongings in their laps.

Because of the heightened security measures, airlines and governments worldwide advised passengers to arrive at the airport early and to expect delays, missed connections and canceled flights.

"I understand why this is being done, but I feel like we are playing into their hands. It's like a Catch-22," said Grace Regnier, 65, who arrived at Los Angeles International Airport today aboard a WestJet flight from Edmonton, Canada, that was delayed two hours.

Regnier and her companion, Pat Cunningham, flew to Los Angeles to take a cruise along the Mexican Riviera. At the Edmonton airport, she said, they went through scanners twice and everything in their carry-on bags was inspected.

An hour before landing, Regnier said, the passengers were not allowed to have anything on their laps, use any electronic device or leave their seats, even to use the lavatories.

In response to the U.S. government's heightened security, Canadian officials have ordered airlines and airports to conduct additional screening, limit travelers to one carry-on item and restrict passenger movements. Canadian officials also advised passengers to arrive early at airports.

In Amsterdam, travelers bound for the U.S. underwent pat-down searches while airline passengers in Belgium were advised to report to the Brussels airport three hours early to allow for a second security check at the boarding gate.

At London's Heathrow Airport, travelers headed to the U.S. were searched twice and allowed only one carry-on item, and Italy's civil aviation authority required more thorough searches of passengers and baggage.

Airline and government officials said the restrictions had been imposed indefinitely and varied from airport to airport.

"The Department of Homeland Security immediately put additional screening measures into place for all domestic and international flights to ensure the continued safety of the traveling public," said Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. "We are also working closely with federal, state and local law enforcement on additional security measures, as well as our international partners on enhanced security at airports and on flights."

The new measures were noticed by Diane Sen, 23, and Neil Dass, 24, of Portland, Ore, who spent their honeymoon on Fiji. Before boarding their overseas flight to LAX, they said they were screened three times and saw extra staff and guard dogs patrolling Nadi International Airport.

Sen added that she did not mind the additional scrutiny and the thorough search of her carry-on bag. "The more we have, the better we feel," she said.

-- Dan Weikel and Nicole Santa Cruz

Photo: Northwest Flight 253 (Northwest is the parent company of Delta) sits on the runway in Detroit, having landed safely after an alleged attempted terrorist attack. Credit: J.P. Karas / Associated Press