Stripping to the chase - airport security

by Alison Benney

Printed in Irish Eyes, winter 2006/7

Pretty soon we'll all be going through airport security in our underwear. At least that's what it looked like in August, when all carry-ons were prohibited after the arrest of 23 suspected terrorists shut down Heathrow. As their plot involved blowing up a dozen planes by igniting bottles of a British sport drink, anything liquid was suspect and, when the airport re-opened, resulted in a clampdown on bringing fluids aboard either. This, added to the already messy post-9/11 security, made flying between the UK and the US a task for the intrepid.

Happily in time for the holiday rush, some draconian restrictions have been clarified both for the US and the UK and, as of beginning November, for Europe as well. While nail clippers are no longer confiscated and computers are again ubiquitous, innocent essentials like toothpaste, lip balm and water are inspected and controlled. One of the drawbacks for expats heading home is that holiday champagne and wine have to risk going cargo-class, unless bought at duty-free just before boarding.

The new rules are spelled out clearly on a number of websites, most easily accessible on the US transport security site, www.tsa.gov. The European Union guidelines are harder to find - don't even attempt to find them on the EU website, go right to Google and type in "EU airport security rules europa". The UK publishes its list at www.heathrow-airport-guide.co.uk/security.html.

Bottom line, each of the liquids, gels, creams, lotions and pastes you want to bring to your seat are limited to 100ml containers (3.5 fluid ounces). Larger containers, even if half-empty, won't pass security either, so don't even think about bringing on board a normal-size tube of toothpaste, jar of hand cream or bottle of mouthwash or perfume; it will be confiscated. Furthermore, all these little tubes and bottles have to fit in a zip-lock or re-sealable transparent plastic bag no larger than one litre (quart-size), that will ride alongside your shoes through the x-ray.

Essential drugs are okay if needed during the flight and you have the prescription to prove it, while bringing baby milk through may mean you have to test-drink some of it.

Plus, starting in May 2007, a stricter regulation for the size of hand baggage will be enforced. The size of carry-ons will be limited to 56x45x25cm (22x17.5x9.85 inches), and the re-sealable packet must be able to fit within the cabin bag. Note: this size restriction is already in effect in the UK.

Tips

Given the time, cost and headaches for all, are these measures worth the effort? More important, are they really effective? As with all preventative measures, it's impossible to say - except to note that there hasn't been a serious terrorism incident on an airplane since security tightened up. In any case, the measures are reassuring to insurance companies, and divert pointing fingers if ever there were another incident.

On the other hand, as one blogger noted, don't say it too loudly but trains seem to be running safely on minimum security. Also it is a given that criminals and terrorists by definition are always a step ahead of the latest law, which would indicate a spiralling trend toward more and more travel restrictions. One cab driver chuckled that if this mentality of fear continues and we do have to strip at check-in, terrorists will start wearing "un string explosif". Now that's something to be afraid of.