In normal times worldwide, half a million people pass through airport security every hour. Many airline passengers say it’s the worst part of travel – in particular, having to confine LAGs (liquids, aerosols and gels) to small containers and take them out of carry-on luggage.
The rules were rushed through in 2006 as a temporary measure. Despite repeated promises they remain in place.
In 2019 Boris Johnson promised that rules would be relaxed at major UK airports by 1 December 2022, allowing larger quantities and eliminating the need for separate liquid scanning.
With a week to go, there’s no way that’s going to happen. But could the stress be eased by 2024? Simon Calder, former security officer at Gatwick Airport and now Independent travel correspondent, can help.
What are the rules for travelers’ hand luggage?
The rules about what you can pack in your carry-on have evolved in response to attacks – successful and not – over the decades.
No weapons, firearms, knives or explosives may be carried. But there are also strict rules for liquids, aerosols, gels, pastes, lotions and cosmetics, which even extend to yogurt and soft cheese.
How did the liquid rule come about?
In August 2006 the airline industry – and confused passengers – woke up to find that passenger safety rules had been tightened literally overnight. The government announced it had uncovered a terrorist plot to blow up transatlantic airliners from Heathrow in North America.
The perpetrators intended to take the components for improvised explosive devices to a number of aircraft. The ingredients, derived from hydrogen peroxide, had to be disguised as soda cans.
The terrorists aimed to gather the bombs on board before detonating them and destroying the plane. they were later convicted of offenses including conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions.
British airline bosses were called in the early hours of 10 August 2006 to be told that their passengers would be banned from carrying anything more than a wallet or purse into the aircraft cabin. Even the pens were banned from transatlantic flights on the grounds that the ink they contained was liquid.
A concession was made, for nursing mothers: they could take milk for their baby through the checkpoint, but only if they tested it first to prove it was the real thing.
Baggage systems could not cope with double or triple the number of items and Heathrow Airport was almost brought to a standstill. Flight networks elsewhere in the UK and Europe were also affected.
And after …?
Three months later, the rules were relaxed – but with strict limits that prevail today. No container can be larger than 100ml and must be carried in a resealable clear plastic bag with a maximum volume of one litre.
Even a very modest relaxation of the rules – to allow airport drink purchases to be made through checkpoints in a sealed ‘security tamper bag’ (Steb) – was long delayed.
Many passengers still get stuck and lose their expensive purchases at the airport because drinks are not allowed through the airport where they change planes.
The limits were introduced as a “temporary measure” while airport security technology arrived. But progress was painfully slow.
Is there a technological solution?
Yes, and it’s already being used at airports like Shannon in western Ireland, where “liquids, gels, pastes, lotions and cosmetics in containers of any size” are allowed through security.
Expensive scanners use computed tomography (CT), as used in medical scanners. The machines can analyze the molecular structure of the contents of a passenger’s bag, identify any potential threat and present security officers with a 3D image.
Why are we waiting?
Progress in improving airport technology has been painfully slow. In 2019 the government told all major UK airports to have advanced CT scanners at security checkpoints by 1 December 2022.
Boris Johnson said at the time: “By making travel to UK airports easier than ever before, this new equipment will help strengthen the vital role our airports play in securing the UK’s position as a global hub for trade, tourism and investments”.
This did not happen: during the Covid-19 pandemic, airports faced catastrophic losses as passenger numbers collapsed and they did not have to make the required multi-million pound investments.
what is happening now
London Heathrow, which is by far the busiest airport in the UK, is in the process of installing the required machinery. said the airport’s managing director, John Holland-Kaye The times that Heathrow has been given a mid-2024 deadline by the DfT.
“Until then the normal passenger experience will be that liquids remain in bags,” he said.
If the DfT directive – which has not been confirmed – applies to other major airports, so will Gatwick, Manchester, Stansted, Luton, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol, Belfast International, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds Bradford, East Midlands , London City, Aberdeen, Belfast City, Southampton, Jersey, Cardiff and Southend (these are airports with more than one million passengers per year in 2019).
So all good then?
Not necessarily: passenger confusion is a persistent problem for aviation security. Nothing has changed yet, although some travelers may conclude that it has.
In response to the story at The timessaid a Department for Transport (DfT) spokesperson. The independent: “Passengers at UK airports should not carry liquid containers larger than 100ml through security and both liquids and electronics should be removed from cabin bags at airport security checkpoints.”
This is not entirely true: some small airports in Scotland, including Barra, Campbeltown and Tiree, have had no security checks since 2017.
Globally, lack of compliance is a key issue for aviation security professionals – and passengers.
In many airports liquids are restricted but can be left in the traveler’s bag. Laptops and tablets such as iPads must be removed in the UK and many other countries, but in some countries they do not need to be removed.
In Israel, the procedures are completely different. Authorities say: “Passengers should arrive three hours before departure for the security screening process.” Sometimes there is intense questioning by officials and laptops have to be taken away. But liquids are allowed without restriction.
The main issue: passengers should not expect aviation security to be the same worldwide (or even across the UK).
Will aviation security remain a permanent pain?
No. In 2019 the International Air Transport Association (Iata) described the current safety situation as “no longer sustainable”. It has been working with airports for over a decade on a project called ‘Smart Security’.
Metal detectors and multi-passenger security should eventually be eliminated, with technology assessing potential threats more effectively than humans watching screens.
The passenger should be able to walk unchallenged along a corridor flanked by detectors, unaware that they are being screened.
Checkpoints will still be staffed, but security staff will be freed up to do what humans do best, which is study passenger behavior and identify “persons of interest” for further investigation.