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Travel Detective Blog: What A Worldwide Travel Alert Means for You

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symbolHistorically, tomorrow is the busiest travel day of the year, and it comes right after the U.S. State Department issued a Worldwide Travel Alert.

What does this all mean to you—whether you’re traveling this holiday or not—in the short and long term?

If you’re traveling in the next day or two, or if you have plans and are ticketed to fly to Europe, does this travel warning mean the airlines will allow you to cancel your flight without penalty?

The answer for the moment is NO. It’s a travel warning and not a travel ban. So the airlines are taking the position that as long as THEY are allowed to fly their aircraft to these destinations, then you can’t cancel without penalty.

Overall, we have seen bookings drop 27 to 40 percent from the U.S. to France. What about bookings to Egypt? The reality is that the country’s foreign tourism numbers had already flatlined before the Russian airliner was brought down.

But what if you DO want to go somewhere? I’ve always taken the position that the best time to go anywhere is after a natural disaster, a civil disturbance, or an act of terrorism.

Would I go to Egypt now? Absolutely. To Paris? It’s a great place to celebrate Thanksgiving. That’s not being irresponsible—it’s embracing common sense, history, and situational awareness.

But what we really need to do is close some pretty egregious security loopholes in Europe, Egypt, and yes, right here in the U.S. These apply to border security (in the wake of Paris), airport security (in the wake of Egypt), and soft target security. They are:

1. Positive bag matching.

Many of us remember that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, this was a mandate for airlines. No passenger could check bags onto a flight and then opt not to go on that flight and have the bags travel anyway. Hundreds of flights were delayed as bags were removed from no-show passengers. Well, what’s happened since then? On some high risk flights to the Middle East, that program is still in effect, but a majority of domestic and international airlines have quietly ignored the mandate, not wanting to spend the money for either manpower costs or gate delays. The result? A huge security loophole. I can report that no positive bag matching was in place at Sharm el Sheikh.

2. PNR and name matching.

No passenger flying to the U.S. can board a plane overseas without the passenger manifest being sent to the U.S. to be matched against a number of criminal and terrorist databases to determine if potential or known terrorists are on the flight. But that PNR (Passenger Name Record) system is not in place in Europe. European countries are now on a fast track to close that loophole and install that system. The free flowing and unvetted travel between European Union countries is about to stop, and not a moment too soon. The result: Initially, long delays at airports, or travelers being denied the opportunity to check in for flights if they’re not at the airport at least two hours before their flight—in time for the system to work.

3. No more free unvetted passport entry at European borders for EU passport holders.

This also applies to border crossings (airports or anywhere else) where, up until now, anyone with a EU passport stood in a different—and fast moving line—as all they had to do was flash their passports and get waved through. No scanning. No vetting. Now, European countries are moving quickly to close that loophole. The result: Long lines at passport control as everyone, INCLUDING European Union passport holders, get checked through computers.

4. Soft target security.

This one is not even being talked about—and nothing has been done. We have reported on this previously for CBS News and it bears repeating—terrorists have made it clear by both words and actions—that their targets are now going to be less secure soft targets. In the past, that has often included American-branded or Western hotels such as Marriott, Ritz-Carlton, and more. This is not just overseas, but right here in the U.S.

Consider this: Since so many terrorist bombs are detonated remotely by cell phone, name a single hotel in America that scans arriving luggage from incoming guests. You can’t. Worse, name a large soft target hotel (e.g., the Hilton in New York or the Marriott Marquis in Times Square) where a bellman wouldn’t quickly accept a $5 or $10 tip for storing a guest’s bags. You can quickly connect the dots to realize the tragic result—an unscanned bag loaded with explosives to be detonated remotely is stored by a bellman. The “guest” simply walks a few blocks away and detonates the device with his cell phone, and hundreds, if not thousands, die.

Every one of these loopholes remains open, and every one of them needs to be closed—not as part of a knee-jerk short term reaction, but as part of an intelligent long-term policy.

By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com

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