7 Dec 2009

Liquid bomb airport checks: what's it all about?

It’s perhaps a little counter-intuitive to mark the opening day of the Copenhagen summit with observations about air travel. But I have a persistent bugbear.

It is the completely ludicrous and almost uniquely British action in forcing passengers to extract their liquids from their hand baggage and put them in plastic bags – which then have to be inspected separately – clogging the security checks.

I have blogged before on the matter and reminded people that the first liquid bomb aboard a plane was attempted over Indonesia as long ago as 1995. In the decades after, no action was taken affecting passengers carrying liquids. Since then we have had convictions in UK anti-terror trials for a plot to attempt much the same.

Having flown of late from Sao Paolo to London, Geneva, and Copenhagen itself. I can report that none of the non-UK airports I travelled through had the remotest interest in my liquids – so long as I wasn’t flying with a British airline. Indeed to my dismay, I find I mistakenly failed to drink a tiny bottle of Pomagne, kindly donated by a BA steward en route to Geneva. So here it is in my baggage upon arrival on another flight to Copenhagen.

The matter of liquids has been rubbished time and again in European Parliament debates. But the issue has now descended to farce. Not least because it is perfectly possible for people to fly on planes into the UK with as many non-plastic-bagged uninspected liquids as they like.

Hence departing UK passengers and users of British owned airlines are being discriminated against, both in terms of security clearance time lost and in having to do it all.

What’s it all about? Is it an attempt to sustain a level of anti-terror hysteria to justify the incredible expenditure on the “war on terror”, or has someone forgotten to check whether anyone else is still doing it? Small thing I agree, but…

And while I am on it, is Terminal 4 at Heathrow the terminal God and BAA forgot? Having done it up well since BA left for the world’s best airport facility – Terminal 5 – BAA seem to have abandoned any idea that passengers might need to transit through it, as I did from Brazil on Saturday.

To reach Terminal 5, as many must to connect to domestic or European BA flights, you are advised to take the train (13 minute wait when I got down there), or try the bus.

There is now no longer a terminal-hopping bus – maybe that’s one up to climate change? Instead there are 27 bus stops and at only one, bus stop two, is there any sign as to which bus actually goes to Terminal 5.

Just one stop, the other end of the concourse. The buses are all red – Transport for London popping in from Richmond, or some such. The wait here was 11 minutes for a ride that stopped at obscure rustic retreats around the airfield before making it to Terminal 5.

Total time of transfer between two terminals in one airport: 26 minutes. Is this a record? And what did the excellent Brazilian Airline TAM do wrong to have their passengers treated in this way?

Tweets by @jonsnowC4

16 reader comments

  1. Helen says:

    The thing that’s always baffled me about this is that any passenger could provide themselves with 100 ml (or whatever it is) of liquid at any time, simply by retreating to the plane loo with the empty bottle they brought on board. Or does urine not work with bombs?

  2. Alan McMorran says:

    I recently flew from Glasgow to Amsterdam and since I was away for only a couple of nights I was travelling with hand-luggage only. As usual I had my liquids in a plastic bag but inside my case since I find that most of the time they either don’t notice or don’t care. On the odd occasion it’s been an issue someone will ask me if I left my liquids in the case, I’ll say “oh yes, sorry, totally forgot” and they take them out, put them through separately and I go on my way.

    This time my case was taken off by the security attendant and placed with a line of other bags, all waiting to be searched. I had to wait 15 minutes as they worked through all the bags then gave me into trouble for not taking the liquids out, did some “chemical analysis” test on them and took a record of my name and flight number.

    At Amsterdam on my way home I went to take the liquids out my case. “Oh don’t worry about that, just leave them in there” the security man said. I explained about my Glasgow experience and he tells me “well there aren’t many terrorists and I see no reason to inconvenience everyone for a few idiots”. And people wonder why I fly via Schiphol instead of Heathrow…

  3. margaret brandreth- jones says:

    Yes that’s the mood for today. Keep yer at on, whilst trying to find some COMMON sense.

    It is better to write with anger, then one can keep the structure. I myself am dealing with ineffectual, blank- minded, personnel who are not able to gauge efficiency and ineffeciency and cannot cross apply rules due to money wasting intervention.

    Everyone is on the make and at what cost ? Integrity, organisation, peace of mind, general stability, peoples lives and generally taking people’s fluids.

    The fight must go on though and these stress levels take their toll. Take care.

  4. Alan says:

    I’m in complete agreement regarding our inane guidelines about taking liquids onto a flight.

    This year I was returning from America and had to get a connecting flight from Heathrow to get back to Scotland. Like you say, when leaving from America there were no worries about taking liquids on to the plane. But after arriving at Heathrow, everyone getting a connecting flight was forced to go through airport security again, presumably because of Britain’s additional rules regarding liquids on flights (on the flight to America, I only had to go through security in Scotland).

    So essentially what you get is hundreds of people who have just come off a flight, forced through a lengthy and laborious security procedure, in order to ensure that they are safe to board a flight. It strikes me as a massive waste of money, not to mention a massive waste of everyone’s time.

  5. Adnan Sarwar says:

    Hello Jon,

    You know of my expertise in this area, I recently asked the staff at Manchester Airport about the liquid policy and also asked them how many bars of soap I could take onto a flight. They answered as many as I wanted. Now, without sniffer dogs at every entrance surely plastic explosive is far easier to take onto a flight concealed as soap.

    I agree with you, we’ve gone too far down this road of “anti-terror hysteria,” if we start banning everything that could either conceal or be a bomb onto flights we’ll soon be boarding naked! If we stop this pointless measure will the Government find it harder to justify our “war on terror?” Probably. Will the people of Britain feel less safe? Probably not, I think with the recent “revelations” from the Iraq Inquiry, people are realising there’s not a terrorist around every corner.

    I think any back peddling on this issue will only happen the other side of the election, if at all.


  6. Chris Yates says:


    I really must challenge on the assertion non-UK airports don’t give a fig about liquids. Foreign airports are required to apply the same rules and do so, though i grant some are more rigorous than others.

    I flew recently Quebec, Newark, Manchester on Continental and Manchester, Dubai, Cape Town on Emirates and the liquids ban was just as rigorously applied all points!

    Jane’s Aviation Security Analyst

  7. William D says:

    If i’ve understood correctly, for your bottle of water given on the aircraft, I think this doesn’t count – rather like all duty free purchases – as it was post-security, and deemed not to be ‘dangerous’. when you transit from one to the other (you havent been able to add any 3rd party stuff)..

    Still, i think the entire liquid thing in a total over reaction. I suspect the true reason for it remaining in place is so that the airports fill their coffers with duty free shop income etc etc.

  8. Graham says:

    It saddens me that some UK airports (Luton and Belfast in my experience) have turned this into a revenue generation opportunity.

    In Belfast my plastic bag was deemed the wrong sort and I was made to buy another to transport my toothpaste and little hotel shampoo bottle the remaining 10 metres to the departure side.

    At one point I had the attention of four staff, who were therefore not giving their attention to the other travellers passing through. And I was subjected to chemical analysis of my liquids for daring to question the logic!

    You’d think Belfast Airport of all places would have anti-terrorist measures sussed.

    At least BAA at Heathrow provide the bags, and in my experience the staff are friendly and helpful about it.

  9. Terrorism Is Real says:

    No offence Jon, but you haven’t got a clue what you’re talking about. Next time please check your facts and try to avoid rambling.

  10. adrian clarke says:

    Jon how many planes is that in the last ten days.Your carbon footprint is probably being discussed this very moment at Copenhagen .Beware, they may arrest you as an enemy of the planet.

    1. margaret brandreth- jones says:

      sshhh! don’t tell everybody or else you may stop the paranoia. It’s better to focus and let tht person thinks it’s them.
      Blast blown it!

      Seriously though, I am very glad check -ins whether in or out of the UK take stringent control measures.

  11. wendy mann says:

    “Is it an attempt to sustain a level of anti-terror hysteria to justify the incredible expenditure on the “war on terror”,”

    simple , the usa government websites claim 7000 deaths due to all serious terrorist attacks world wide in the last 8 years. (world pop. of 6 billion)

    in that time we have killed possibly a million iraqis, 45 000 afghanis and we are just begining with the pakistanis.

    you can work out the rest i suspect

  12. Andy says:

    I don’t agree with Snow that non UK airports do not check for liquids in hand luggage.

    This week I had a tiny, 20 ml, bottle of hand sanitiser confiscated at Hangzhou airport. In Hong Kong the authorities always check for liquids. United Airlines in Hong Kong had an additional check on hand luggage immediately prior to borading the plane meaning that water and alcohol etc purchased at the airport could not be taken on board. In Boise, Idaho I had a tube of sun tan lotion confiscated.

    The origin of the ban on liquids is well known. If Snow’s logic is followed, the authorities might as well say: “There haven’t been any terrorist hijackings and planes flown into buildings since 2001, so we are not going to inspect hand luggage anymore”.

Comments are closed.