TSA prepares for Christmas travel rush — and holiday terrorism threats

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is preparing for an expected increase in airline travelers as the Christmas holiday approaches.

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The prep work comes against a backdrop of past holiday attempts to terrorize airplanes. The so-called “underwear bomber” was convicted of trying to blow up a Northwest Airlines Flight on Christmas Day in 2009.

A TSA spokeswoman told The Hill that the agency was aware of the potential for holiday copycats.

“As the calendar approaches national holidays and terrorist–related anniversary dates (Sept. 11 or Christmas day underwear bomber), TSA is well aware of the symbolism of these dates,” TSA spokesman Lisa Farbstein said in an email.

“This holiday season is no different,” Farbstein continued. “Airport checkpoints and baggage rooms are fully staffed as this is a busy time of the year for airline travel.”

The underwear bomber — Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab — attempted to attack a Northwest flight from Amsterdam to Detroit that landed on Christmas Day. Abdulmutallab later confessed to trying to detonate explosives that were hidden in his under garments after spending 20 minutes in the bathroom as the Northwest flight approached Detroit.

Farbstein said TSA has since switched to a “risk-based and multi-layered approach to airport security.”

“Each one of these layers alone is capable of stopping a terrorist attack,” she said. “In combination, their security value is multiplied, creating a robust, formidable system. A terrorist who has to overcome multiple security layers in order to carry out an attack is more likely to be pre-empted, deterred or to fail during the attempt.”

Farbstein said the TSA was also encouraging airline passengers to report abnormalities, as the people who were on the plane with Abdulmutallab did.

“This time of the year, as always, we also ask travelers if they see something, say something,” she said.

The AAA auto club has forecast that 5.4 million will fly over the period from Dec. 22 to New Year's Day. The organization said the figure represents a 4.5 percent increase in holiday air traffic from 2011.

“The year-end holiday season remains the least volatile of all travel holidays as Americans will not let economic conditions or high gas prices dictate if they go home for the holidays or kick off the New Year with a vacation,” AAA President Robert Darbelnet said of the expected holiday travel.

“Primary economic indicators all show modest improvement from last year and AAA is projecting an increase in the number of Americans stuffing their stockings with airline tickets and hotel reservations,” Darbelnet continued.