Why do we still ban liquids and gels on planes?


explodeIn Britain, three men were just convicted of plotting to blow up airplanes using liquid bombs. But the country is actually considering dropping the carry-on liquid ban.

Why? Because while the plot was real, many experts believe their idea would never have worked.

Even if the idea would have worked, the 3.5 ounce, 100 milliliter ban still reigns supreme as perhaps the silliest anti-terror travel restriction yet. Because even if you decide – a big “if” – that the need for a liquid ban is real, the execution doesn’t work.

Leaving aside the scientific issues, which are many, the size restrictions just don’t make sense. Particularly the idea that passengers can bring a one-quart plastic bag full, as long as no one container exceeds 3.5 ounces.

Personally, I admit that the ban drives me nuts, because as a Californian, my favorite gift for friends or clients while traveling would be a bottle of wine, which now — unless you pay high airport prices — is not possible without checking luggage.

And I also used to love to bring nearly empty bottles of shampoo or lotion on trips, and then just dispose of the empties. But the rule is clear: the container itself cannot exceed the 3.5 ounce size. In fact, I have had more than one client delayed, and another almost arrested, for arguing that specific point.

Large bottles are illegal, according to TSA, even with just an ounce in them, because of the mixing potential. Apparently, the worry is that someone – or some number of people – could bring in several small bottles, and mix them together in one large bottle to create an explosive device.

And it wouldn’t have to be an especially large bottle, just bigger than 3.5 ounces.

Okay then, for the sake of argument, conceding that point, what appears immediately upon exiting the security lines? Drinks for sale. Many in 20-ounce plastic bottles.

I rest my case.

(Photo: Justin Gaurav Murgai/Flickr Creative Commons)

  • ton

    i have seen the demo bomb made for the bbc, devastating (and the bbc is not the sensation type) so i’m less annoyed with the ban than you are.

    yes it would be possible to buy a bottle and to mix it but it would at least be a diffiicult job to do on a moving airplane.

    so as far as i’m concerned the can keep te ban

  • John

    Janice … I have people fly to the UK almost on a daily basis. They’re considering dropping the ban because they have a technology that can scan liquids in real time (no dipping or testing needed). They have a low number of airport so they are considering updating their scanning equipment (carry on x-ray) to this new technology. Once done, they can then drop the ban because they would scan all liquids 100%. At least according to the UK Home Office the last time I investigated.

    And the reason you can purchase drinks after the checkpoint (beyond the $$$ involved) they are scanned coming on to the property. The one I don’t understand is why airline personnel (pilots and FAs) are exempt from the ban.

  • Frank

    In Britain, three men were just convicted of plotting to blow up airplanes using liquid bombs. But the country is actually considering dropping the carry-on liquid ban.

    Britain’s have been dealing with TERRORISM for decades. And, the USA? I trust their decision to ban. They removed the “weapon” as much as they could and allowed the public to still travel with limited amounts.

  • Hapgood

    The conviction of the bombers has now “sealed the deal” as far as the TSA is concerned. It’s a decisive Victory for the TSA. It has not only defeated a terrorist plot, but has utterly annihilated every critic of the liquid and gel restrictions. The TSA can wield it as a wonderful weapon to blow away anyone who utters a peep in complaint or opposition. Indeed, every airport screener has reason to rejoice at the defeat of an enemy– not al-Qaeda, but the public who challenges and criticizes them rather than automatically respecting and obeying them just because they wear a uniform.

    It doesn’t matter whether the plot was actually plausible, or even if the Brits sensibly conclude that the restrictions are more trouble than they’re worth. The War on Liquids is, and shall ever be, a permanent fixture of air travel in the United States. And the reason for this is has more to do with politics than with “security.”

    Since we’re stuck with the War on Liquids, I think it would be better to refocus our criticism on the inconsistent, arbitrary, and often stupid way it’s implemented at airport checkpoints. I can’t imagine how such inconsistency can do anything to make the restrictions effective, or how their “leaders” could defend it.

    The bottom line is that the “experts” need to look at the supposedly simple “3-1-1” rules and work out the actual wrinkles implications of implementing them with real people at real airports. They’ve had enough time to figure that out. Then they need to break that all down into simple, consistent rules appropriate for airport screeners of varying intelligence, and then train all the screeners thoroughly consistently. That would reduce the needless difficulty for passengers, while maintaining (supposedly) effective protection against anyone stupid enough to repeat the London plot.

  • Amy

    I just roll my eyes at the fact that I have made it through security with a small Leatherman in my bag but got the hairy eyeball for my mascara. Heaven forbid I give makeovers on the flight. The ban itself is not worth the efforts we put into it, especially since there are more cost-effective ways to go about these things that cause less hassle the traveler.

  • Hapgood

    By the way, John, the “scanning” in question consists of putting the boxes of bottles through the very same x-ray machine used for scanning hand luggage. I once had to wait for 15 minutes at a nearly empty checkpoint for the boxes to be scanned.

    Because I wanted to fly today, I refrained from asking the obvious question: If a regular x-ray scan of bottles sold at extortionate prices is good enough to distinguish between beverages and explosives, why wouldn’t it work for normally-priced bottles passengers bring themselves? I guess it’s best take the TSA’s advice and “try not to overthink these guidelines.” Any logic associated with the War on Liquids is classified for national security reasons.

  • John

    Hapgood you’re wrong.

    According to the UK Homeoffice, who controls the checkpoints, they’re going to spend millions of pounds over the next few years to update the checkpoint scanners so they can distiguish between liquids. Once that’s in place, they’ll cancel the ban.

    The US can not implement the same system due to cost.

  • CT

    Re the “mixing” threat: like many frequent flyers who are also 1) thrifty, and 2) environmentally aware, I always bring my own empty water bottle with me when I travel. I fill it inside the security zone. Never has TSA said anything about this empty container as I’ve passed through screening. So, whether or not all the stuff that’s sold inside the secure zone is screened, I wouldn’t need to buy a bottled drink in order to have a mixing container for making something incendiary out of various substances.

    IMHO, it’s time for the liquids ban to go. And I’m a scientist with a strong background in chemistry, married to an airline pilot with 22 years in the US military. We know something about relative threats and the liquid ban is taking time, money, and attention away from the directions we should be looking right now.

  • http://www.traveltoiletries.net Mick

    @CT: I’ve had empty plastic bottles taken off me at security checkpoints in the UK.

    I agree it’s a bit of a daft rule – all the more so as it’s not enforced properly. I’m gone through security with stuff over the size limit in my bag that I’ve forgotten about, while being queried at other times over stuff that met the requirements.

  • ton

    i think the idea is that you can take the empty bottle and pour liquid from smaller ones in it. So creating 1 powerful bomb

    (if you think it does not work, check the bbc report they had an expert make one)

  • Joel Wechsler

    Jiohn, you are missing the point about large bottles being sold in the secure area. Regardless of whether or not they have been scanned, they could still be emptied and used, in theory, to mix an explosive by a number of people, each of whom is carrying the approved 3.5 ounce containers. This is what makes the prohibiton of large containers so silly.

  • Frank
  • http://www.tripso.com/author/leocha Charlie Leocha

    Here is the BBC video of the effects of a liquid bomb–

  • bbgunplinkplink

    This is not such a silly ban. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmJEBJwHZHo