Now You See It, Now You Don't

Why is the federal government working so hard to become a large-scale contributor to the headache factor of travel?

By: M.J. Smith

Travel is inherently a chaotic business. Things happen. Or they don’t. There are flash floods one day and a transit strike the next. For veteran travel agents and longtime clients, the only real surprise is when a trip goes off without a hitch.

But even if you accept this premise, you’ve got to wonder why the federal government is working so hard to become a large-scale contributor to the headache factor of travel.

It isn’t just the Transportation Security Administration and its ever-fluid procedures. (Before my last flight, my bare feet were checked with a metal detector I was speechless.) It’s that Washington has taken to issuing orders, sometimes over a weekend, then rescinding them, then revising them and, sometimes, abandoning the whole idea.

For example, the United States has allowed foreign nationals to stop briefly, sometimes just to sit in an airport transit lounge, while en route to their final destination. Over a weekend this summer, the administration ended the program without notice. Some travelers learned about the decision after their planes touched down in the U.S.

It’s been two years since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. They have been a busy two years, granted, but it’s past time for the appropriate agencies to have a clear idea of what’s happening now and at least a general idea of what’s needed. Why are these travel pronouncements continuing to tumble out of Washington as if they’re the product of a crisis-mode all-night pizza party?

The most recent example concerned passports carried by foreign nationals. Washington had announced that, as of Oct. 1, all inbound travelers must have passports that can be scanned electronically, or they must have a visa.

Computer-coded passports aren’t all that common. Australia and Japan have them, but The New York Times has reported that about a third of the passports held in Western European countries, such as France and Spain, cannot be scanned. So, about a week ago, Washington sidestepped and said it would consider yearlong exemptions for some countries.

Pizza, anyone? "