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SAFETY & SECURITY Last modified on November 15, 2009

Liquid lessons

Stephen Hogan reports on EU moves to lift the restrictions on liquids and gels, and the implications for airport security.

With increasing pressure from the travelling public, airlines and others for the strict liquid, aerosols and gels (LAGs) regulations to change, air passengers worldwide may soon see the start of the 100ml restriction being lifted.

At a recent meeting in Brussels of the European Commission and representatives of all European Union (EU) member states, a three-step plan was proposed that will progressively ease the restrictions on liquids starting from April next year.

The prospect of gradually easing the ban has emerged because of successful developments in X-ray and advanced threat identification technology that can detect suspicious liquids. Scanners are already in place at some major airports and look set to relax the strict liquid regulations. 

As a first step, the EU is proposing lifting the ban in April 2010 for passengers transferring at EU airports onward to other destinations – for instance, Dubai to New York via Frankfurt. This would allow passengers originating outside the EU to buy duty free liquids without the fear of confiscation upon arrival in Europe. This would also give European airports time to install, and become accustomed to, the use of new screening technologies in advance of the complete removal of the liquids ban for all passengers.

The Commission’s draft plan envisages removing the ban for all passengers departing from airports handling more than 10 million passengers a year in 2012, with smaller airports waiting until 2014. How this would work in practice is unclear, but many in the aviation industry agree that this approach is bound to cause confusion and uncertainty for passengers.

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has been working in co-operation with the EU and has already invested heavily in new checkpoint screening equipment, which is intended to bring an end to the ban for US passengers. 

The relaxation of these rules necessitates enhanced means to identify potentially dangerous liquid threats accurately and efficiently – and the answer lies in advanced scanning technologies.

European regulators and the aviation industry have started to evaluate available technologies ready for 2012 deployment. The European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), which has been working closely with the European Commission and the major security system manufacturers, is confident that by the end of 2009 a range of viable aviation security equipment will be available and ready for deployment, including equipment that will comply very closely with US Transport Security Administration’s (TSA) standards. 

The technical preparation work for the change is being carried out by ECAC, under the guidance of the European Commission, with significant involvement by the UK, France, Germany and Holland. They have grouped security systems into four categories, A to D:

A  Dip-strip type detection

B  Individual bottle scanners – using Raman spectroscopy or dielectrometry among others

C+  Automated detection of liquids in bags and automatic classification of multiple liquid explosive threats outside of bags (in mixed use trays) – using advanced X-ray baggage scanning systems and ability to automatically detect, but not classify, the presence of liquids in bags

D  Automated detection of multiple liquid explosive threats inside bags – CT or advanced X-ray scanning systems.

While equipment categories B and C+ are considered most suitable for immediate deployment, all have been designed with the same ultimate goal of allowing airport security to return to screening as it had been prior to the liquid ban. 

The unavailability and impracticality of type ‘D’ equipment has so far led regulators to focus their efforts on type ‘C+’ equipment for primary screening at medium to large airports, with at least one additional equipment type for secondary alarm resolution.

While some airports have voiced support for type ‘D’ systems because of their potential operational advantages, there are unknowns about whether they can indeed detect suspicious liquids at an acceptable false alarm rate.

Meanwhile, regulators, manufacturers and the aviation industry are working to formulate viable solutions with proven and tested technologies to ease the restrictions placed on airline passengers today.

With the next generation of technology coming online in the coming decade, airport security will be able to keep ahead of the international threat of terrorism, while also helping to minimise the impact on the airline passenger. 

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