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New Air Travel Rules You Need to Know About

Trust us—you're going to want to read this before booking your next flight.

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Know before you go!

A shoe bomber. Liquid explosives. An underwear bomber. A plot to detonate explosive cargo. These are just four of the threats the American aviation industry has thwarted since September 11, 2001. But for every threat, the Department of Homeland Security comes up with new rules to keep us safe, including a bunch that began rolling out in 2017 and are now in full effect at all U.S. airports, according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Plus, now there are a slew of new coronavirus-related safety rules and regulations that will affect your travel plans in all sorts of ways. Find out what you need to know, as well as more of the real reasons behind those other weird airplane safety rules.

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Coronavirus-related rules, regulations, and restrictions

The pandemic has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, including the way we travel. Since March, airlines have introduced a number of policies to keep both passengers and crew members safe and to try to stem the spread of COVID. These rules encompass everything from mandatory face masks and face shields when flying certain airlines to changes in boarding procedures. And that’s just the beginning. Countries around the world have banned Americans from visiting for the foreseeable future, and even within the United States, travel and quarantine restrictions have been put in place. For more specifics, see our guide to everything you need to know about flying during the pandemic.

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A new deadline to get a REAL ID

Before the pandemic hit, lots of people were standing in line (for hours) at the DMV to trade in their existing state driver’s license for a REAL ID or enhanced driver’s license. That’s because the TSA would no longer accept driver’s licenses that were not REAL IDs for United States travelers as of October 1, 2020. (Technically, you don’t need a REAL ID—you can use a passport instead—but you won’t be able to use your regular driver’s license.) But since a crowded DMV is the last place anyone should be right now, the Department of Homeland Security extended the deadline. Now, you have until October 1, 2021—another full year—to switch out your license for a REAL ID. While we’re on the subject, here’s what airport security could look like in 10 years.

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Increased scrutiny on food you bring onto the plane

If you’re considering bringing your own food onto the plane, don’t be surprised if TSA officers ask you to take it out of your carry-on bag, particularly if the food is “dense” enough to interfere with the X-ray machine’s view of the other contents. What’s a dense food? Canned foods may be considered dense, according to the TSA, as well as baby formula, breast milk, and baby food. All of these items should be removed from your carry-on and placed into bins for easier screening, the TSA advises. But even a cookie might raise the TSA’s suspicion, apparently. In 2017, on a flight from Sacramento International Airport, one passenger was asked to remove a cookie from her carry-on bag and place it into a separate bin.

Oh, and we didn’t mention beverages here because the TSA has banned most liquids (and gels) larger than 3.4 ounces, with the exception of these 12 items can be over 3.4 ounces and still go in your carry-on.

New Air Travel Rules You Need to Know AboutDenis Makarenko/Shutterstock

New interest in your books and magazines

Since May 2018, new TSA screening procedures may mean that TSA officers will be asking you to remove books and magazines from your carry-on before sending it through X-ray. In part, this is to be certain you’re not hiding something between the pages. But mostly, it’s to “better search for weapons and items relate to explosives,” according to a TSA statement, since books and magazines can cause “clutter” in the X-ray image, just as food and liquids can. Here are another 13 things that make you more likely to get flagged by the TSA.

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Almost all your personal electronics are subject to screening

The TSA now requires travelers to place all personal electronics larger than a cell phone (such as tablets, e-readers, handheld game consoles, and, one might wonder, large-size cell phones?) into bins for X-ray screening in standard security lines. Make sure you know these 22 red flags someone is spying on your phone.

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Prohibition on powders

You might be asking yourself: What’s wrong with baby powder? Nothing—except it’s tough to tell just by looking that it’s actually baby powder and not something toxic or dangerous. As a result, the TSA now scrutinizes powdered substances in amounts greater than 350 milliliters (about the size of a soda can), and if an agent can’t be sure a powder is safe, the traveler may be asked to discard it. Your best bet is to avoid packing powder items in your carry-on; if you do, remove the item from your bag and place it in a bin before being asked. While this makes sense once you understand the reasoning behind it, the same isn’t quite true for these 14 strange items that have “disappeared” from suitcases.

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Unidentified no-fly objects

“Items that cannot be identified and resolved at the checkpoint are prohibited from entering the cabin of the aircraft,” the TSA announced in an April 2018 press release. That means that the contents of your carry-on bags will be subject to more scrutiny than they have been in the past. If you’d rather not have everything displayed in public, you can request a private screening. Check out these 16 other air travel mistakes you need to stop making before your next flight.

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Neatness counts

If you haven’t noticed this already, TSA officers are now paying attention not only to what you packed in your carry-on but how you packed it. If your bag is overstuffed and the X-ray machine can’t get a clear and unobstructed view of what’s in it, you may be asked to unpack and place your items in a bin in order to go through the X-ray machine. In case that’s not your idea of fun, the TSA advises travelers to organize their carry-on bags and keep them uncluttered. Try these 12 tips to take the stress out of air travel.

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“Facing” the future of air travel

Facial recognition technology promises to be the latest “convenience” in air travel. Instead of showing your ticket and passport, you’ll just have to show your face to a scanner. This technology is already in use in many airports. Exciting, right? But there’s something you should consider, and that’s whether in making use of this convenience, you’re giving up civil liberties. Here’s more on why you should be concerned about facial recognition and boarding passes.

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Onboard cell phone calls

Like it or not, the technology already exists; it’s just a question of when it will be trotted out. Experts predict airlines won’t permit in-flight cell-phoning until they feel significant pressure from consumers, and even then, it might still take a bit of FAA or airline arm-twisting. If and when it happens, let’s hope passengers follow these cell phone etiquette rules.

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Good news about safety

As of January 1, 2020, planes flying in most U.S.-controlled airspace must be equipped with something called “Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast” (ADS-B), which uses GPS technology to calculate an airplane’s precise location, speed, and direction, and transmits this information twice per second to ADS-B receivers. The new law is expected to enhance air travel safety; plus, it’s an environmentally friendly technology. Here are 6 facts that will help you feel less anxious about air travel.

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Marijuana is still not legal on airplanes, but…

Since marijuana is now legal for recreational or medicinal use in nearly 70 percent of the United States, albeit not under federal law, it’s understandable there’s been some confusion about whether it’s “cool” to fly with your gummies from, say, Michigan to Massachusetts (marijuana is legal for recreation in both states). According to the TSA’s “What Can I Bring?” guide (as well as its Instagram page), if a TSA agent suspects a substance is marijuana, they’re legally required to notify law enforcement.

That should make things pretty clear, right?

Well, maybe not so much. The TSA also notes on that Instagram post (which begins, “Are we cool? We think we’re cool”) that it’s not interested in looking for marijuana. Further, the TSA now expressly permits people to fly with marijuana- and CBD-infused products that contain no more than 0.3 percent THC and are produced legally under federal law. So, what’s OK to bring? Right now, it would appear that any CBD product that contains little to no THC will pass muster. Same with the hemp-based epilepsy medication Epidiolex. All of that said, that’s not to say the TSA won’t involve law enforcement. It’s just that if they do, you’ll be well within your rights.

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Families shouldn’t have to pay extra to sit together

More and more airlines are charging a fee if you want to choose your seat. For some, this is a new annoyance, but for those traveling with children, it can be either very expensive or very traumatic. “I get calls from families all over the nation, telling me about being separated from their children on flights,” says Rainer Jenns, president of the Family Travel Association. That includes one from a mother who was separated on a flight from her four-year-old with autism.

But here’s something you should know: Separating a child under the age of 13 from their guardian has been illegal since 2016, when Congress enacted the Families Flying Together Act (which required airlines to seat any child under the age of 13 adjacent to a family member, at no additional cost). The trouble is, the Department of Transportation (DOT) hasn’t been enforcing the Act, so if you find yourself having to make a choice between being separated from your children and paying a “seat selection fee,” you should contact the DOT. Find out the best airlines for economy class fliers.

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Tips on being prepared

The TSA advises that the best way to ensure a quick trip through the security screening process is to prepare:

  • Arrive two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight
  • Know what you might have to remove from your carry-on before arriving at the security line
  • Consider packing items that are subject to increased scrutiny in your checked baggage
  • Minimize items that you wear to the airport, such as bulky jewelry, scarves, and accessories, and if you must wear them, place what you can in bins

Of course, don’t forget to retrieve everything you placed in bins. Next, learn the 40 secrets airline pilots won’t tell you.

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers life and style, popular culture, law, religion, health, fitness, yoga, entertaining and entertainment. Lauren is also an author of crime fiction; her first full-length manuscript, The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.