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Australia leads the way in partly removing LAGs ban, but why is it not happening globally?


One of the greatest irritations to air travellers is the ban on liquids, aerosols and gels (LAGs) that has been in place since shortly after the thwarted 2006 attempt to explode liquid bombs on board a series of aircraft departing the UK on trans-Atlantic routes. Now Australia is set to end the 100ml limit but only in a halfway measure that will permit LAGs over 100ml in sealed bags purchased within the airport and initially only in international transit lounges.

Effective 01-Jul-2012, airports plan to end for only transfer passengers the 100ml limit for LAGs carried on board flights following the adoption of new security equipment deemed able to detect liquid explosives. Only liquids bought in sealed bags at other airports' duty free shops will be exempt from the limit initially, with plans for the exemption to be extended from Apr-2013, when it is lifted in the US and Europe. Australia will reportedly be the first country globally to lift the LAGs ban. Australia's transfer security screening is separate from main terminal screening, making the changed rule relatively easy to implement. The Federal Government is contributing AUD28.5 million (USD29.5 million) to help airports phase in the new technology.

The 100ml limit has caused clogs in airport security queues and general hassle when travelling, in Australia as elsewhere. There are a number of international flights that operate in a triangular pattern, making stops in both Melbourne and Sydney and requiring onwards passengers to deplane and re-clear security (inbound only). 

By Apr-2013 the advanced scanners will be introduced at main screening points at the eight international gateway airports for all passengers departing Australia at the commencement of their international journey.

This second stage aims to permit the screening of a wider range of LAG items beyond duty free liquids. It is anticipated that similar technology will be introduced across the EU and other nations at the same time in 2013, leading to a global relaxation of the 100ml rule.

The scanners, comprising multi-view explosive detection X-ray machines and bottled liquid scanners have already been trialled at Sydney and Melbourne airports, with staff wearing distinctive purple uniforms to highlight their presence and explain the process to passengers. Multi-view X-ray machines can examine baggage at more than one angle, and have the ability to detect different liquids' densities. Explosives are measurably denser than, for example, water or juice.

Australia Federal Transport Minister Anthony Albanese has commented that “the cessation of restrictions will make air travel easier and less stressful for passengers as well as free security staff to better focus on their core screening responsibilities".

Existing arrangements for the screening of laptops and other similar devices will remain, although efforts are under way to identify the technology that would end the need for passengers to remove laptops from carry-on luggage.

Standard X-ray machines will not detect liquid explosives so a number of companies have been working on the new technology for several years, including Rapiscan, which employs 3D X-ray technology using real time tomography (RTT), the same that is used in medical applications.

Rise of the machines

Such machines do not come cheap and the airport business is all too aware of the failure of TNA (Thermal Neutron Analysis) technology a decade or so ago. The TNA machines had a price tag of USD1 million each and very few were deployed before the project was scrapped in the US and the UK. Aviation security became the most dynamic and profitable part of the business post-9/11 and looks likely to remain that way. The price of such machines is still very high when weighed even against the existing cost of security that administers the LAGs checks.

So apart from Australia, the new technology has been trialled elsewhere around the world (and especially in sensitive location such as the US and the UK), for several years now, so why can not the LAGs regulations be relaxed there as well, now, rather than in 2013? We should look first to Europe for that is where the LAG attacks would have taken place.

Europe declared technology 'not mature enough'

European airports, supported by trade organisation ACI EUROPE, have always taken a very cautious approach to the technology. The initial date that was discussed for the easing of restrictions on LAGs was Apr-2011 but following a meeting with ACI EUROPE in Oct-2010 in advance of the Hungarian Presidency of the EU, which began on 01-Jan-2011, a communiqué was issued by ACI EUROPE that emphasised its belief that the technology was “not mature enough” to face this deadline. ACI EUROPE also discussed with Hungarian ministers its overarching ‘Better Security’ initiative, a regulatory approach that focuses (ironically) on a harmonisation of rules and an integration of more advanced technologies; also sustainable funding, a better passenger experience, and a structured approach to unforeseen new security requirements.

At much the same time, ACI EUROPE, in conjunction with the Schiphol Group (the company that provided ACI EUROPE’s then president) led a delegation of 14 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) and representatives from the European Commission and national authorities to Schiphol Airport to inspect the latest generation of security scanning equipment. MEPs from the Transportation Committee were approached on the margins of the visit, and advised of airports' concerns on the issue.

ACI EUROPE stuck to its line that the current technology simply was not mature enough to be relied upon, citing evidence from laboratory tests by the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) and stepped up its representations by pointing out that major outbound markets – in particular the US – had yet to indicate whether they will accept the removal of the restrictions.

These two factors meant that the Apr-2011 deadline had the potential to cause huge confusion and disruption for both airports and their passengers and with this in mind ACI EUROPE embarked on a major campaign to press upon EU decision makers the need to reconsider the existing timelines. These contacts were followed up with letters to the MEPs outlining in more detail the nature of the problem. Subsequently, several MEPs agreed to send written representations to the European Commission, and accepted drafts authored by ACI EUROPE.

In a communiqué, ACI EUROPE said, “This is an issue of both importance and urgency, with a potentially direct and disruptive impact upon daily airport operations across Europe. While ACI EUROPE will continue to fight on this issue, we would ask individual airports to contact both their national authorities at the highest possible level and their European Parliament representatives to express their concerns”.

Broadly speaking this standpoint seems to have remained ACI EUROPE’s position since. On 20-Apr-2012 a spokesman said that the relaxation of the ban in Europe is still under discussion – with the deadline of Apr-2013. The European Commission has ordered an independent study into the feasibility of the relaxation of the ban, including interaction with the 14 or so airports that are currently trialling the available technology. Based on the report’s findings, apparently a decision on whether or not they will go ahead with Apr-2013 is due in Jun-2012 or Jul-2012.

ACI EUROPE added: “We continue to work closely with the Commission and other stakeholders, to help establish what the operational reality of any new rules would be and how it would affect the life of different types of passenger (intra-European point-to-point, long haul, intercontinental transfer). As ever, we are in favour of any measure that genuinely improves the passenger experience, without compromising the level of security.”

Airports found themselves between a rock and a hard place, needing to ensure maximum passenger comfort and terminal efficacy but equally needing to avoid losing out financially as they were often required to move their retail operations airside in order to cater for expanded security provisions landside. The infrastructure requirements at some airports ran to tens of millions of dollars, so it is understandable that they wish to see a return on that investment by way of maximising in-terminal spending, retail concession leases often being linked to volume of sales.

Don’t expect Europe to emulate Australia

Whatever happens in Australia (which so far has avoided terrorist acts on its soil) does not necessarily mean it will occur soon in Europe.

In the US, aviation security is a massive, multi-billion dollar industry with many facets rights now apart from LAGs, such as passenger pre-check (the flavour of the month), risk-based security initiatives, the danger from X-rays emanating from body scanners, embarrassment to passengers caused by the same procedures, enhanced pat-down body searches, cargo screening and airport perimeter security, quite apart from the debate as to whether the industry should be allowed to gravitate back to the private sector, owing to the cost of the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and reports finding the private sector performs better.

Surprisingly, the TSA is still playing catch-up, 10 years after its formation. According to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report of Jul-2011, of the 2297 million-dollar high-tech explosives detection system (EDS) machines that TSA owns, an undisclosed number were built to detection standards set by the FAA in 1998, three years prior to 9/11. The rest were built to the first detection standards developed by TSA, in 2005. In 2010, TSA revised the detection requirements again, in response to “credible and immediate threats.” It announced that by 2011 it would procure 260 new EDS machines based on the 2010 requirements, to be followed by additional procurements in subsequent years. The interesting fact arising from all this is that apparently there was no revision of such detection standards arising immediately from the projected 2006 LAG attacks.

These machines are used primarily for testing for explosives in hold baggage (which cannot be tampered with once a flight is under way) and they are by all accounts subject to high false alarm rates. This does not bode well though for the implementation of technologies from a foreign country used to counter what is only a perceived threat (LAGs) rather than a very real one (such as an in-hold bomb).

ACI World passively supports harmonisation

The position taken by Montreal-based global airport representative body ACI World is that there should be international harmonisation on the lifting of LAGs.   

At the ACI World 21st Annual General Assembly in Nov-2011, members unanimously passed three resolutions reiterating their intent to promote safe operations in a global regulatory environment

The first resolution reminded all stakeholders that the European Union has called for lifting of the ban on LAGs in hand baggage in 2013 and states, “ACI continues to advocate for international harmonisation and coordination surrounding the removal of the restriction. Airport members recalled the implementation of LAGs restrictions in 2006 and the many problems passengers encountered when travelling internationally resulting in the forfeiture of personal and retail LAGs at the screening checkpoints".

The resolution urges the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), regional and national regulators to work with stakeholders in the industry (including ACI and its member airports) to develop fully coordinated plans internationally for the eventual lifting of the restrictions on the carriage of LAGs. These coordinated plans would incorporate timetables associated with the testing and approval of required new screening technologies, allowing sufficient time and resources to effectively enhance passenger facilitation while adequately countering the threat from international terrorism.

“ACI is working to avoid a repetition of the situation in 2006 and 2007 when different rules relating to the carriage of LAGs were applied from State to State, causing confusion and inconvenience among passengers and industry stakeholders,” said director general Angela Gittens. “Our team will be monitoring the development in the EU and will continue to work with ICAO on a harmonised approach.”

In any scenario harmonisation makes sense. But the question remains to be asked: if Jul-2012 is soon enough to be accepting the viability of the technology, even in a restricted form initially, for Australia, why should it not be for everyone else? Australia has driven the harmonisation debate forward and the rest of the world needs to respond to the challenge. To be seen to be dithering will not placate an irritated public.

ACI World’s stance appears to have influenced that of the ACI-North America organisation where new technology is concerned. At a meeting in Aug-2011 between ACI World’s Ms Gittens and ACI-NA’s president Greg Principato and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano, Ms Gittens and Mr Principato applauded the Secretary’s effort in working with other countries to develop uniform security standards and offered the assistance of ACI as the officially accredited airport representative to ICAO. In discussing the challenges for airports in responding to the European Commission’s planned relaxation of the restrictions on LAGs in 2013 (the Australian 2012 proposal was public knowledge by this time) Ms Gittens encouraged US involvement, to ensure technology is effective and has been thoroughly tested in the operational environment.

Previously, in Dec-2010 Mr Principato testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security. In his testimony he said, “We routinely encourage TSA and the European Union to collaboratively develop mutually recognized standards for security screening technology...a joint board of directors meeting of the North American and European regions of Airports Council International (ACI-NA and ACI EUROPE) this past September (2009)... expressed concern that the EU has unrealistic deadlines for loosening the restrictions on Liquids, Gels and Aerosols, which cannot be met and are out of sync with similar initiatives in the US."

In other words, caution still prevails in North America. If anything, the US is even more cautious. In its most recent communiqué, ACI-NA refers to the European Commission’s rapidly approaching 29-Apr-2013 deadline for eliminating the restrictions on LAGs (no mention of Australia), and reiterates that airports in North America are concerned about the possibility that efforts to review and approve the technology for use in the EU may not be fully aligned with those in the US and Canada. There are serious questions, it says, about the ability of cost-effective technology to detect explosives reliably without sacrificing throughput, and there is significant concern the Commission may move to relax LAGs restrictions absent proven technology that has been approved by TSA, thereby creating a potential security vulnerability as well as unnecessary confusion among passengers.

Therefore, any adjustment to the LAG restrictions must be fully coordinated between the US and the EU, and must be predicated upon mutual recognition of (Type D) liquids explosive detection systems that have been tested and proven to detect liquid explosives. The communiqué then refers to the game-changing imposition of fees by airlines on checked baggage, which applies equally in the US and Europe. It says, “Given the significant increase in the volume of carry-on baggage at checkpoints in the US, which resulted from airline-imposed fees on checked baggage, any adjustment to the LAGs restrictions must not introduce additional items which would have to be removed from carry-on baggage and screened separately. In addition, testing in a laboratory is not an accurate indicator of its performance in the airport environment. Operational trials conducted at airports are critical to validate alarm resolution protocols, which are vital to maintaining throughput. We encourage the EU and TSA to work collaboratively to evaluate, test and approve liquids explosive detection technologies and initiate any adjustment to the LAG restrictions in a closely coordinated manner, with mutually recognised implementation dates that provide industry adequate time in which to implement the revised measures.

IATA more constructive

Interestingly, it is IATA, representing the airlines, rather than ACI, representing the airports, which appears to have been more constructive in its attempts to find better methods of countering the terrorist threat at the point of boarding, and especially during the latter years of the reign of the combative director general Giovanni Bisignani. The airlines are, of course, collectively that part of the business that has actually suffered directly from terrorism, there having been few attacks on airports since the days of Carlos the Jackal four decades ago and the 1985 assaults on check-in queues at Rome and Vienna airports by the Abu Nidal organisation. Weighed against that is the fact that it is the airports that have to handle the security on their behalf, but IATA’s input is more than justified.

Identify 'bad people not bad objects'

Prominent amongst IATA’s projects are those aimed at identifying "bad people not bad objects" and which would involve the use of three different security tunnels by passengers depending on profiles based on biometric data and flight booking data. The IATA plan would eliminate the need for nearly all physical screening as well as routine scanning and searches of carry-on luggage.

Anger at stepped-up airport security procedures has spilt recently, with passenger revolts against the systems in place in the US in particular. In the week this article is written a male passenger at Portland Airport in Oregon stripped naked in protest at the lengthy procedures. He will not be the last to vent his anger in such a bizarre fashion.

There are numerous conflicting components of the airport security conundrum. There are the airport operators that have invested heavily in retail concession space as a direct result of a terrorist attack that never happened and over which they had no control. Now they have to weigh the costs and benefits of that investment against the implementation of new technologies that do not come cheap.

Then there are the manufacturers of those technologies, who have invested heavily in R&D in what has become a multi-billion dollar business. They expect to see a return on that investment, soon.

There are the concessionaires who have invested, sometimes for the first time in the airport sector, in anticipation that the model in place will continue long enough to satisfy that investment.

And finally there are the passengers themselves, who are in danger of being overlooked in the debate. In a complex world they do not wish travel to be any more complex than it need be. For their sake rapid harmonisation of all security procedures, worldwide, is called for. That is the best way of winning back minds and hearts.

Background information

LAG threat arises after surface transport terrorism trend

The 2006 trans-Atlantic aircraft plot, coming five years after the Sep-2001 terrorism in the US, followed a switch in emphasis from surface transport terrorism that struck Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005. The plot, according to governments, intended to detonate liquid explosives on board at least 10 aircraft travelling from the UK to the US and Canada, similar to the failed "Project Bojinka" plot in the Philippines in 1995. The UK plot was foiled before it could be carried out and, as a result, unprecedented security measures – banning passengers from taking any liquids, or in a few cases luggage, on board – were immediately put in place, causing huge disruption. The restrictions were gradually relaxed in the following weeks, but the right of passengers to carry liquids and gels onto commercial aircraft is still limited.

Eight men were charged in connection with the UK plot. The six-month trial began in Apr-2008. The jury failed to reach a verdict on charges of conspiracy to kill by blowing up aircraft, but the court did find three guilty of conspiracy to murder. In Sep-2009, a second trial found three persons guilty of the plot. In Jul-2010, three others were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 20 years.

Was the plot for real?

However, revisionist theories have since questioned whether the plot was intended to be implemented and point to other "miscarriages of justice" in Britain such as the killing by security forces of the innocent Brazilian national Jean Charles de Menezes, mistaken for a terrorist, the day after the second round of London transport bombing attempts in Jul-2005 and the false arrest of alleged chemical bomb terrorist plotters in East London in 2006 during which one of the accused was shot. Some security analysts cast doubt that producing a bomb from the explosive, TATP, on board an aircraft had a realistic chance of success. Others pointed to the fact that no explosive was actually made, no flight reservations were made and most of the accused did not have passports. Furthermore, the short "life" sentences handed out to persons believed to have been plotting seriously to kill more people than those during the 9/11 attacks, which killed up to 4000, contrasts with the minimum 40-year sentences (the longest permissible under UK law) handed out to others whose plots had been far less ambitious.

On the other hand, on 25-Dec-2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab travelled from Ghana to Amsterdam, where he boarded a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit, having previously purchased his ticket with cash in Ghana. He subsequently partially exploded a bomb sewn into his underwear made from plastic explosive, a mix of PETN and TAPN (the same explosives used unsuccessfully by "shoe bomber" Richard Reid in Dec-2001, whose sneakers did not blow up because he had tramped around Paris for a day in the rain) and a syringe containing liquid acid. So, technically, such attacks are clearly feasible.

Indignity of the search

Whatever the truth of the matter, the real impact of the measures subsequently introduced has been on passengers, and particularly elderly ones, who, after suffering the indignity of long queues, the shoes-on, shoes-off rigmarole and lengthy personal searches by uniformed security personnel, often find that they have breached security regulations by carrying marginally excessive volumes of LAGs in error, for example, sun cream or toothpaste, not to mention the confusion surrounding how they should declare essential medical items.

For all passengers there is the inconvenience of having to purchase many items they would ordinarily pack in advance, such as those mentioned above, and also spray deodorants and perfumes, beer, wines and spirits, and even the ubiquitous small bottle of water that everyone seems to carry, often at inflated prices at airside shops, or when on some carriers, having to buy liquid refreshment on board aircraft, again usually at a higher price than they would expect in a cafe.

Stop press:

Russia’s airports are to ease on 05-May-2012 passenger security search regulations. Initially the easing will allow most belts and shoes to be worn through security and later in the year the restriction on liquids will largely be removed as improved screening technology is introduced. Notably, vodka will still be excluded from carry-on luggage given its flammable nature.

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