As Laptop Ban Looms, European Airports May Loosen Liquid Limits

  • EU cooperating with industry tests of exlosives detection
  • Project would allow larger bottles to be kept in carry-on bags

While travelers face the prospect of being forced to check in laptops and tablet computers, another airline security hassle might get eased.

Europe’s airport operators are in talks with regulators to introduce security technology enabling passengers to bring larger liquid items in carry-on bags, according to the Airports Council International trade body. Systems to check for explosives without removing fluids from hand luggage are being tested at some locations in cooperation with the European Union.

The bid to loosen rules for carrying drinks and toiletries onto airliners highlights shifting industry concerns after U.S. and U.K. authorities announced restrictions, starting Saturday, for consumer electronics aboard planes, reacting to unspecified security risks. The limits on liquid containers passengers date back to 2006, when terrorists attempted to blow up trans-Atlantic planes with home-made explosives.

Read more about the laptop ban and what it means for air travel

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, “is doing a study working with manufacturers, and we’re going to run pilots at our airports, to help check the performance of the technology,” ACI Europe Director General Olivier Jankovec said Tuesday at a briefing in London. “The problem we have at the moment is that we don’t know that the screening technology for liquid explosives is up to the task of not impacting passenger throughput.”

Small Bottles

The EU and U.S. prohibit bottles larger than 100 milliliters (3 fluid ounces) from air passengers’ hand luggage, and require travelers to unpack liquid containers for separate inspection at security point X-ray machines. The liquid detection trials are a second attempt at introducing the technology after an early attempt to bring out systems missed a 2011 deadline, Jankovec said.

The equipment being tested can detect a wider range of substances than previously, and triggers fewer false positives, Jankovec said. The ACI is seeking to assure that the new technology doesn’t create bottlenecks for security lines. It’s also seeking flexibility on the rules for smaller airports because “the cost of employing additional technology is huge and disproportionate.”

“There’s been significant progress in the technology,” which previously “was not good enough to detect all categories of liquid explosives -- it was good for some categories but not all -- and then we had problems with high false-alarm rates,” he said.

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