A few years ago I traveled to L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue in France with a couple of friends, a quick and spontaneous two night break. Before leaving town, one of my friends invested his last few dollars in a can of tapenade to take home to his wife.
Only, thanks to a foiled terrorist plot in 2006, he would never receive the gift. Tapenade, Marseille airport security staff determined, was a liquid. The jar was painstakingly removed and destroyed.
Vacationers will soon be able to board a plane with all the tapenade they want (within reason) – and, for that matter, even more practical items like drinking water, sunscreen and deodorant – as the rule restricting liquids is in place of hand luggage to 100ml the way out and Teesside airport became the first in the UK to eliminate checks.
The in-flight liquid limit was introduced in 2006 after British police thwarted an Islamist terrorist plot to detonate explosives on transatlantic flights. They planned to smuggle liquid explosives disguised as soft drinks in their carry-on bags in what would have been the deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11. After the foiled plot, the government raised the terrorist threat from “serious” to “critical” and as a precautionary measure banned hand luggage on all planes.
The hand baggage allowance was soon relaxed, but the ban on liquids remained, not just in Britain but in countries around the world. To date, it is not possible to pass UK airport security with liquids larger than 100ml in volume and those that meet the regulations must be sealed in a clear resealable bag. But everything is changing.
The end of the 100ml liquid limit
The new CT X-Ray technology means airports will be able to scan liquids inside hand luggage, providing security personnel with a detailed 3D image of the contents rather than existing 2D images. This means passengers will be able to travel with up to two liters per person of liquids, gels and pureed foods in their bags, and will no longer need to place laptops and other electronic devices on a separate tray.
Already Miami International Airport, Leonardo da Vinci International Airport in Rome and Schiphol in Amsterdam have started using the technology, and the UK government has given airports until June 2024 to upgrade their screening equipment. Some are already implementing the new scanners.
In early March, City Airport revealed it would be the first to lift the 100ml liquid limit in time for the Easter holiday. However, Teesside International Airport has quietly sidelined them, launching two state-of-the-art scanners that allow passengers to board flights to destinations including Dalaman, Alicante, Amsterdam and Corfu without removing the liquid thumbnails from their bags . Since Schiphol has also implemented the new scanners, this means that a passenger can now complete an entire return flight without any 100ml liquid limit.
Liverpool and Luton airports will follow suit in late 2023 and Gatwick, Stansted and Heathrow have confirmed they are working to roll out the technology to meet the 2024 deadline. Also Manchester, Birmingham, East Midlands, Aberdeen, Glasgow, Southampton and Edinburgh have confirmed they are working to update their systems in time for next summer.
John Strickland, aviation consultant and analyst, said: “This will be a great stress reliever for passengers, reducing time for security checks and helping the punctuality of flights. From the airport’s point of view, if passengers have more time and are more relaxed, it will leave more opportunities to improve revenues in retail and food outlets.
There is, however, a catch. If traveling to an overseas airport that does not have the technology, passengers will not be able to carry their oversized liquids in their hand luggage on the return leg. If they haven’t paid for a checked bag, that means they’ll have no choice but to use up all their tapenade, slather on sunscreen, and leave what’s left behind. That, or distribute their liquids in small 100ml containers.
At present, less than 1% of the EU’s 347 airports are using the new technology and the decision to expand cash allowances on flights is a government matter, meaning most passengers will have to wait a while to feel full benefits of the rule change.
What does the future hold for airports?
There are other ways the airport security experience could improve with the advent of new technologies. Fingerprint and iris verification is already used by security at some airports, and biometric and facial recognition systems are expected to one day replace the need for a physical passport.
Kevin O’Sullivan, chief engineer at the SITA Lab, told The Telegraph:
“With the arrival of things like biometrics and better risk profiling of incoming travellers. I’d like to think about the next decade, when you arrive after an international flight, you’ll walk down a long corridor and that’s the immigration process. Your biometric data will be checked. You will be picked if needed, but otherwise you will walk to the exit. It will make a big difference.”
In-flight mobile data will soon become the norm on flights to Europe, after the EU announced in November 2022 that airlines can safely deliver 5G technology on planes; the deadline for member states to comply is June 30, 2023. However, the US is unlikely to allow 5G coverage on flights anytime soon, as the frequencies are higher and there are fears it could cause harmful interference to aircraft.
There are even companies developing sophisticated robots that may be able to replace sniffer dogs at airports. California-based biotech company Koniku is developing a product that can detect a range of odors, such as explosive chemicals and drugs, in a matter of seconds. It is thought that such machines may be less fallible than sniffer dogs, which can be prone to false positives when fatigued and must undergo significant training before being employed.
However, given how long it has taken the aviation industry to finally update the 100ml liquids rule (17 years), don’t expect innovations such as facial recognition technology and robotic sniffer dogs to be unveiled at Luton Airport in near future.