WASHINGTON - A new decade has dawned, but for Americans on the go and those flying into the United States, fresh threats of terrorism against the U.S. are making air travel almost as stressful as the days following Sept. 11, 2001.
The attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight on Christmas Day has trained a spotlight on airport security lapses and communication breakdowns among various domestic and international intelligence agencies.
The latest breach came Sunday at New Jersey's Newark airport, where a man sauntered into a supposedly secure passenger area. The ensuing chaos delayed flights for hours and will likely result in serious disciplinary measures against an airport security guard; the mystery man, meanwhile, has yet to be found.
Beth Schwarz, a Chicago lawyer travelling home from a New Year's Eve trip in New York City, said Monday there wasn't much noticeably different at LaGuardia Airport as she arrived to catch a 6:30 a.m. flight.
But the situation changed once she got to the boarding gate, where officials from the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were out in full force.
"There were a bunch of TSA agents there doing random bag checks, which I have never seen before in all my travels," Schwarz said.
"So that was weird, but not even a fraction as disconcerting as the National Guard going through my bags in October 2001."
Valerie Richardson, a lawyer and nursing student in Murrell's Inlet, SC, is a frequent traveller who said she's dreading the increased security measures sure to result from the Christmas Day scare.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian man on board the Northwest plane, which was bound for Detroit from Amsterdam, allegedly tried to set off an explosive device that was concealed in his pants.
The device failed, resulting in a minor fire, and a suspect was quickly subdued.
"If they punish ordinary travellers for Captain Underpants's fireworks display, I gotta say I'm done flying," Richardson said Monday. "Please don't over-react, feds."
Indeed, the federal government announced new rules on Monday aimed at travellers flying to the United States from 14 countries deemed as potential terrorist hotbeds.
The directives, which took effect immediately, will replace the emergency order put in place immediately following the attempted Christmas Day attack. They spell relief for U.S.-bound travellers who have been subjected for more than a week to additional screenings and carry-on baggage restrictions as well as being forced to remain in their seats during the last hour of flight.
Instead, the TSA is now demanding that travellers flying into the United States from high-risk countries undergo additional screening, including pat-downs and full-body scans. The measures will apply to passengers flying out of countries listed as state sponsors of terrorism - Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria - as well as other "countries of interest," including Nigeria, Abdulmutallab's homeland, and Yemen, where he allegedly trained with al Qaida.
"I think this guy may have done us a favour," Tom Kean, a co-chairman of the 9-11 Commission, said Sunday.
"For the first time here, we're looking at the problems in Yemen. For the first time, the administration is really concentrating on this. For the first time, we're re-doing airplane safety."
Not surprisingly, the airport security issue has become a political hot potato, with some demanding the resignations of high-ranking officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Republican lawmakers have also accused President Barack Obama of not being focused on terrorism.
Hearings will be held on Capitol Hill later this month into the alleged intelligence breaches surrounding the Christmas Day incident.
Bill Burton, a White House spokesman, said Monday that the administration is taking action as the president is briefed by various government agencies about the Christmas Day incident. Dozens of names have been added to the government's no-fly list after an ongoing review of the terrorist watch-list system, he pointed out.
"Probably thousands upon thousands upon thousands of names were scrubbed, and probably dozens were moved to different lists," Burton told reporters aboard Air Force One as Obama flew home from Hawaii.
The president was to meet with CIA officials later Monday, and was scheduled to sit down with top national security and intelligence officials on Tuesday to discuss the preliminary findings of investigations into how Abdulmutallab, with known ties to extremists, flew under the radar of intelligence agencies.
Burton said the White House would likely release some new information following Obama's meetings on Tuesday, adding the president may also speak publicly.
"If you look at what's happened so far over the course of this review, the president hasn't just waited for all the different pieces to come in before acting," Burton said.