Airport security rules for toiletries and other liquids have changed twice since summer.
Many infrequent fliers don't know them. Transportation Security Administration screeners don't seem to apply them evenly. And the government, airports and the airlines don't have a uniform plan to aid the 25 million that are expected to fly in the days surrounding Thanksgiving.
That has some regular fliers and travel advisers expecting big bottles of beauty products to make a mess of things next week.
So concerned are TSA officials that they've planned 70 public events around the country to advertise the rules about the liquid ban, including one yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.
"We still see a large number of [banned] items at the checkpoint and while every occurrence may only take a few minutes, when tens of thousands of people are passing through the checkpoint that can have a significant cumulative effect," said Darrin Kayser, a TSA spokesman.
At BWI, almost 55,000 people come through a day.
The rules were put in place after a suspected bomb plot involving liquid explosives was foiled in London in August.
Initially banned in carry-on baggage, liquids are now allowed in small quantities. TSA is trying to help passengers remember how much with its "3-1-1" campaign: Three-ounce containers, packaged in one clear quart-sized, zip-top baggie. One baggie per passenger is allowed.
But already some of the rules have caused trouble because they allow screeners some leeway that Kayser acknowledges may seem inconsistent.
For example, passengers are allowed to fill unmarked containers with their favorite liquids, but the nation's 43,000 screeners are each allowed to decide if they look like more than 3 ounces. The items either get pitched or packed in checked luggage.
Compounding the problem next week will be once-a-year passengers who don't seem to know there are rules for liquids or anything else despite five years of intensified aviation security.
Some in line yesterday at BWI didn't know to remove their shoes, to take their laptops out of cases and their coats off or to hold their boarding passes so security screeners can see them.
"Thanksgiving is going to be a nightmare," said Bob Kenny, a self-described rule-observant traveler who finds the scofflaws frustrating. Heading home to Boston yesterday, he even had his belt, watch and other metals in bags to speed screening.
"You're going to have people arguing with screeners because they just spent $100 on hair spray and shampoo that they don't want thrown away."
Chris Herrin, an Annapolis builder on his way to Denver, said you can't always win even if you do follow the rules. He checks his bags with his toiletries or leaves them at home to avoid the hassle because he can't find his products in 3-ounce sizes. But his wife "brings hers and has lost 50 percent of things she shouldn't lose because screening is so inconsistent."
He says it's not worth arguing with screeners.
Terry Trippler, an industry watcher for the travel club myvacationpassport.com, agrees. He said travelers already are in for more lost baggage and higher fares this holiday season. To avoid a security-related meltdown, everyone should use common sense and be patient, he said.
Trippler said there is plenty that passengers, screeners and airlines can do to improve the process. Passengers should leave out questionable items, such as badly labeled toiletries and sharp objects. Screeners should learn to apply the rules consistently.
Airline officials should ask travelers what they have in their carry-on bags. Airports should distribute baggies in the ticketing area.
"We need to get to people before they get in the security line, and then there won't be a disaster," Trippler said.
"I've never had an airline agent ask me what I have in my bag and if I think I can carry my 46-ounce bottle of Prell on board. During the holidays they should ask. The airport should have people walking around."
BWI has no plans to hand out baggies, but signs have been posted outlining the rules. TSA also has do's and don'ts on its Web site, www.tsa.gov. For instance, more than 3 ounces of baby formula and labeled medicine is allowed, as are toenail clippers. Knives are not.
The agency also will be staffed to capacity next week and supervisors will be available to aid the flow.
Kevin Mitchell, head of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents corporate travel managers, said backups are bound to occur during the holidays and TSA should make the hassle seem worth it.
He said he was disappointed on a recent trip from Las Vegas home to Pennsylvania that he wasn't caught carrying the wrong size baggie. And during a random secondary search of him and his luggage by TSA screeners, no one asked for his identification.
"That kind of inconsistency erodes confidence in the system and, at the same time, frustrates you," he said. "We're all paying a price for this. The blocking and tackling is not getting done, and you ask yourself what's it all for."
The Air Transport Association, a trade group for domestic airlines, said security is a fact of airport life and everyone needs to cooperate.
The group estimates the number of travelers Thanksgiving week will increase 3 percent over last year's figure to about 25 million air passengers.
Holiday travel tips:
Make sure the airline has your home or cell phone number for flights out and back.
Write your name, address and phone number inside and out of your bag and keep a list of contents.
Pack clothing for each member of your party in each bag so everyone has something if one is lost.
Know TSA rules allowing only 3 ounces of liquid inside a quart-size zip-top baggie in carry-ons.
Do not carry wrapped gifts that cannot be inspected and consider shipping gifts ahead of time.
Keep valuables and medicine in your carry-on baggage.
Leave luggage unlocked.
Check-in online and print boarding passes before arriving at the airport.
Carry little onto to crowded planes. One small bag and one purse or laptop case is allowed.
Have photo ID matching your itinerary and boarding pass ready in the security line.
Be prepared to remove your shoes and coat at security.
Be aware if your flight serves food and be prepared with snacks in case of delays.
Remember that beverages purchased behind the security gate can be taken on the plane.
Arrive at airport 90 minutes before a flight and the departure gate at least 30 minutes before a flight.
Be patient.[Sources: TSA, AirTran Airways and Terry Trippler with myvacationpassport.com]