August 11, 2006

Airline luggage restrictions seen staying in place

By Mark Trevelyan, Security Correspondent

BERLIN -- Draconian restrictions on carry-on baggage may stay in place for months, even years, after British authorities thwarted a suspected plot to blow up planes in mid-air using liquid explosives, security analysts said.

This week's critical alerts in both Britain and the United States caused massive disruption to air travelers and highlighted the need to invest in new airport checkpoint technology to screen passengers and hand luggage for explosives.

"Quite frankly, metal detectors and X-ray don't cut it," said Chris Yates, aviation security expert at Jane's information group.

"We need to invest. We need to get money into the checkpoint. We need to reassess how we do it ... Perhaps this is the final wake-up call to actually shake the decision makers from their lethargy."

U.S. authorities have banned travelers from carrying liquids and other gel-based products onto planes, a step also taken by some Asian airlines on Friday for flights to Britain and the United States. British airports went further by banning hand luggage altogether and insisted even baby milk be tasted by an accompanying adult before being allowed on board.

An al Qaeda plot to blow up airliners with liquid explosives was uncovered as far back as 1995, but authorities have never previously banned the carrying of fluids onto planes.

That could change, perhaps for good, with the uncovering of this week's suspected Islamist militant plot to blow up planes with chemical bombs disguised as drinks.

Though police have given no further details, security analysts said there were indications they were concerned about militants setting off a liquid explosive such as nitroglycerin with some form of non-metal detonator, or combining otherwise harmless liquids on board a plane to produce an explosive mix.

"I fully expect ... for the next 20 years nobody will be able to take their can of Dr Pepper on a plane. I fully expect this to be a new regulation of international travel and perhaps even domestic flights," said British security analyst Sebestyen Gorka.


Current airport security typically involves a five-layered process of screening checked-in luggage, with multiple X-rays and CT scans.

That is too unwieldy and time-consuming to apply to passengers and their hand luggage. Instead travelers pass through a metal detector gateway and their bags through an X-ray machine, with a random sample also checked for explosives residue using trace particle detectors.

What would it take to be able to check all passengers and bags for explosives?

"It's something which I would imagine could only be solved with either sniffer dogs or electronic sniffers and hand searching. It's a very significant undertaking to do that at somewhere like Heathrow airport," said David Claridge, managing director of Janusian Security Risk Management in London.

Jane's analyst Yates said new technology is becoming available, such as quadrupole resonance scanning developed by Australian-based QR Sciences, which uses radio waves to stimulate certain atoms such as nitrogen, present in explosives.

Its scanner, with a traffic-light display to indicate all-clear, further investigation or danger, has already been trialed internationally, including at Manchester airport.

Rolling out such technology universally would require time and a huge reallocation of investment which until now has gone into other areas, such as deployment of sky marshals on planes.

In the meantime, Yates said he expected the current restrictions on hand baggage to continue, at least for flights into and out of Britain, possibly for months.

He said a permanent ban on hand luggage would be untenable, not least because of the risk of theft from luggage carousels.

But not everyone rules out such radical solutions.

"I reckon the days of carry-on luggage are gone," said Maxim Worcester, managing director of Control Risks consultancy in Germany. "It's the easiest way of solving the problem, isn't it?"