Airport security liquids rule – what is changing?

by The Technical Blogs


Worldwide in normal times, half a million people pass through airport security every hour. Many airline passengers say it is the worst part of the journey – in particular, the need to limit LAGs (liquids, aerosols and gels) to small containers and extract them from cabin baggage.

The rules were introduced hastily in 2006 as “a temporary measure” to protect against explosives. Despite repeated promises they remain in place.

In 2019 Boris Johnson vowed the rules would be eased at major UK airports by 2022, allowing larger quantities and eliminating the need to have liquids separately scanned. The change requires a huge investment in hi-tech scanners, and during the Covid pandemic airports collectively lost billions of pounds.

Rishi Sunak’s government extended that deadline to June 2024. But even though some airports have now deployed the necessary technology, the biggest UK hubs say they will not be ready in time.

Simon Calder, former security officer at Gatwick airport and current Independent travel correspondent, explains more.

What are the rules for travellers’ cabin baggage?

The list of possessions banned from carry-on bags have evolved in reaction to attacks – successful and otherwise – over the decades.

All weapons, whether firearms, knives or explosives, are banned from hand luggage. But there are also strict rules about larger quantities of liquids, aerosols, gels, pastes, lotions and cosmetics, extending even to yoghurt, soft cheese and Creme Eggs.

How did the liquids rule come about?

In August 2006 the aviation industry – and baffled passengers – awoke to find security rules for passengers had tightened overnight. The government announced that it had uncovered a terror plot to blow up transatlantic jets from Heathrow to North America.

The perpetrators aimed to take the ingredients for improvised explosive devices on board a number of aircraft. The ingredients, derived from hydrogen peroxide, were intended to be disguised in soft drink containers. They aimed to assemble the bombs on board before detonating them and destroying the plane. The plotters were later convicted of offences including conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions.

The bosses of Britain’s airlines were called in the early hours of 10 August 2006 to be told their passengers would be banned from carrying anything more than a purse or wallet into an aircraft cabin. Even pens were banned from transatlantic flights, on the grounds that the ink they contained was a liquid.

One concession was made, for nursing mothers: they could take milk for their baby through the checkpoint, but only if they tasted it first in front of security staff to demonstrate it was the real thing.

Baggage systems could not cope with two or three times the normal number of items, and Heathrow airport ground almost to a standstill. Flight networks elsewhere in the UK and Europe were also affected.

And then …?

Three months later, the rules were eased – but with strict limits that prevail today at almost all UK and overseas airports. No container can be above 100ml, and they must be carried within a resealable clear plastic bag with a maximum volume of one litre. The limits were introduced as a “temporary measure” while airport security technology caught up. But progress has been painfully slow.

Even a very modest relaxation of the rules – to allow airport purchases of drinks to be taken through checkpoints in a sealed “security tamper-evident bag” (Steb) – was slow to be implemented.

Many passengers are still being caught out, losing their expensive airport purchases, because duty-free drinks are not allowed through the airport where they change planes.

Is there a technological solution?

Yes. Expensive scanners use computed tomography (CT) – the same technology as medical scanners. Machines can analyse the molecular structure of the contents of a passenger’s bag, detect any potential threat and present security officers with a three-dimensional image. They can also analyse whether laptops and other electronic equipment present a danger.

At airports where the technology is used, liquids and laptops no longer have to be removed. The kit was first used in Europe at Shannon in the west of Ireland, where “liquids, gels, pastes, lotions and cosmetics in containers of any size” have been allowed through security since March 2022. Teesside airport and London City airport are also now fully updated.

Travellers have a much easier experience: they no longer need deconstruct their cabin bags. And airports say it strengthens security, enhancing passenger safety, as staff have closer scrutiny of items being taken “airside”.

But other UK airports are lagging behind.

Why are we waiting?

Progress on 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.

The deadline was missed. During the Covid-19 pandemic, airports faced catastrophic losses as passenger numbers collapsed. The obligation to make the multi-million pound investment required was lifted. But in 2022, transport secretary Mark Harper said: “The tiny toiletry has become a staple of airport security checkpoints, but that’s all set to change. I’m streamlining cabin bag rules at airports while enhancing security.

“By 2024, major airports across the UK will have the latest security tech installed, reducing queuing times, improving the passenger experience, and most importantly detecting potential threats.”

Some airports believe they will meet the June 2024 deadline, including Luton and Birmingham. However, the UK’s four biggest airports will not be ready.

A spokesperson for Heathrow airport told The Independent: “Heathrow has to replace 146 lanes, while some of the smaller airports have less than 10 to replace, this shows the magnitude of the work ongoing at Heathrow while we continue to ensure smooth security experiences for passengers.”

Gatwick expects to be ready in the first three months of 2025. A spokesperson for the Sussex airport said: “We currently plan to have completed the major logistical operation required to install the remaining scanners in Q1 2025, after the busy summer peak period has concluded.”

Manchester Airports Group, which owns Stansted and East Midlands as well as Manchester, said: “This will see the new scanners in place on a large number of our security lanes by June 2024, with the full completion of the programme expected the following year.”

Are the new scanners safe?

Yes – arguably much more so than the older X-ray systems, with more sophisticated assessment of potential threats. With the amount of staff time consumed in “secondary searches” reduced, officers will be free to spend more time assessing passenger behaviour.

Some aviation security experts too much effort is devoted to inspecting travellers’ possessions and not enough looking at the person. In Israel, where airport security is the most stringent in the world, the key layer of defence is interviewing passengers in depth – before they pass through what is often a fairly cursory examination of their cabin baggage.

What is happening now?

The Department for Transport (DfT) has given the UK’s leading airports a deadline of June 2024 to install the necessary equipment to allow passengers to pass through security more smoothly.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said: “The tiny toiletry has become a staple of airport security checkpoints, but that’s all set to change. I’m streamlining cabin bag rules at airports while enhancing security.

“By 2024, major airports across the UK will have the latest security tech installed, reducing queuing times, improving the passenger experience, and most importantly detecting potential threats.

“Of course, this won’t happen straight away – this is going to take two years to be fully implemented. Until then, passengers must continue following the existing rules and check before travelling.”

Which airports in addition to Teesside and London City?

It is not entirely clear. The DfT talks about “most major airports” but is not issuing a list for security reasons.

The airports are very likely to include the top 10 UK airports (by 2019 passenger numbers): Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Stansted, Luton, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol and Belfast International.

It is also likely to apply to Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds Bradford, East Midlands, London City, Aberdeen, Belfast City, Southampton, Jersey, Cardiff and Southend (these are the UK airports that handled more than one million passengers annually in 2019).

So that’s all good, then?

Not necessarily: passenger confusion is a constant problem for aviation security. Nothing has changed yet, though some travellers may infer that it has.

Worldwide, lack of conformity is a key issue for aviation security professionals – and passengers.

At many airports liquids are limited but can stay in the traveller’s bag. Laptops and tablets such as iPads must be removed in the UK and many other countries, but in some nations they need not be.

In Israel, procedures are entirely different. The authorities say: “Passengers should arrive three hours prior to departure for the security check procedure.” There is sometimes intense questioning by officials, and laptops must be removed. But liquids are permitted without restriction.

The main issue: passengers should not expect aviation security to be the same worldwide – or even UK-wide. At some small Scottish airports including Barra, Campbeltown and Tiree there have been no security checks since 2017.

Is this going to cost me more?

The airports that are collectively investing hundreds of millions of pounds will be seeking a return – and that could include raising fees. But the new tech should cut staff costs, representing savings for airports.

Willie Walsh, director-general of the International Air Transport Association (Iata) – representing airlines worldwide – said: “Implementing this technology should not come with a big bill. In fact, simplified processes should deliver significant efficiencies.”

“Speedy deployment should be possible. The technology has already been used successfully and for a long time at various airports across the world with measurable improvements to the passenger experience.”

Will aviation security remain a permanent pain?

No. In 2019 the International Air Transport Association (Iata) described the prevailing security situation as “no longer sustainable”. It has been working with airports for over a decade on a project called “Smart Security”.

Ultimately walk-through metal detectors and security pat-down of many passengers should be eliminated, with technology assessing possible threats more effectively than humans watching screens.

The passenger should be able to walk unchallenged along a corridor flanked by detectors, barely aware that they are being checked.

Checkpoints will still be staffed, but security personnel will be freed up to do what people do best, which is to study the behaviour of passengers and identify “persons of interest” for further investigation.


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