Aids to ease travel go digital; people still need to stand in line

WASHINGTON – Grappling with the usual holiday travel hassles? Now there’s an app for that, of course.

As holiday travel season gets into full gear, the Transportation Security Administration is unveiling new tools to help move travelers along more efficiently, in addition to the standard tips of packing light, showing up early and bringing a dose of patience along with everything else.

Patience could be the most important tool, as AAA is predicting that travel over this Thanksgiving weekend could be the busiest since 2007, with nearly 49 million people expected to travel 50 miles or more for the holiday. That would be about 1 million more than last year, the auto club said.

TSA officials said they are ready, with solutions both newfangled – social media tools – and old-school – more agents on the job.

“We’ve hired thousands of new TSOs (officers), we’ve converted several part-time TSOs to full-time TSOs, and we’ve also brought on several new TSA K9 teams to help improve security and alleviate lines,” said Mike England, a TSA spokesman.

The agency is also touting two new platforms to help communicate with travelers during the hectic holiday rush.

Travelers unsure of what they are allowed to carry on to the plane can now use Twitter or Facebook – by tweeting to @AskTSA or going to the Ask TSA Facebook page – to have their questions answered in a matter of minutes.

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“People can send in pictures of an item, or they can describe an item to ask whether it is allowable in their … carry-on bag and our team will let people know if those items should go,” said TSA spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein.

Live assistance is available from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. EST weekdays and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. EST on weekends and holidays. The agency said one-third of the questions it gets are being responded to via social media.

“It’s been very successful,” England said. “We get hundreds, if not thousands, of tweets and messages per day from travelers seeking advice.”

The use of Twitter and Facebook give the agency an easy global reach.

“We wanted to create an easy dialogue between our team and the travelers, like a conversation you would have with friends,” Farbstein said. “Our goal is to help someone if they’re frustrated.”

The agency also offers a “what can I bring?” function on the TSA.gov website where people can find out which items are prohibited.

But long lines and lost luggage are still likely to be the norm over coming weeks at the nation’s airports, including Phoenix Sky Harbor International, which is expected to be one of the busiest. That’s where experts say passenger preparation can help.

“Pack smart, know what you’re carrying versus what you’re going to be checking,” said Rob Yingling, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. “If you’re checking it on an airline that has fees go ahead and take care of those before you come to the airport.”

Allow plenty of time to navigate the airport and get through security, as long lines are typical during this time of year and can sometimes last for hours.

“I would encourage travelers to try and arrive at the airport two hours in advance if they are flying domestically and three hours if they are flying internationally,” England said.

He said one way to avoid the lines is to enroll in TSA’s Pre-Check program, which pre-clears passengers for an $85 fee for a five-year pass. England said that 99 percent of people in the Pre-Check program end up waiting less than 10 minutes at security.

Highways also will be busy, with more than 89 percent of Thanksgiving travelers expected to be driving, according to AAA. It is estimating that 43.5 million Americans will be hitting the road, up 1.9 percent over last year.

AAA attributed the increase in holiday travel to an improved economy, with people feeling more secure in their jobs and having more disposable income for travel.