First London Airport Scraps Liquids Ban, Will U.S. Follow Suit?

The U.K. has set a June 2024 deadline to eliminate the ban on liquids over 100 milliliters at airport security checkpoints, with the widespread use of scanners that also mean travelers will no longer have to remove electronics from their carry on luggage.

Small London City Airport, near the financial district, has become the first London airport to make this shift and the second one in the U.K.

Travellers can now carry on up to two litres of liquid, and toiletries no longer have to be put in separate bags.

It is the second UK airport to use this technology in all its security lanes, after Teesside introduced it in March.

…”The level of processing now through the X-ray is even more secure than it was previously and the machine has the ability to differentiate to between a non-dangerous and a dangerous liquid.” The machine would still reject images it was not happy with, she said, but it would allow staff to focus on potential threats while allowing items such as water, shampoo and perfume to go through.

Liquid bans were introduced in 2006, following an ostensible (and far-fetched) plot in the U.K. to hide explosives in drinks. Thus began the ‘War on Water’. In countries that did not adopt an offensive posture towards bottled water, separate screening had to be done at gates for flights headed to places including the U.S. and U.K. Bottled water was confiscated from passengers in Hong Kong headed to the U.S., so United Airlines economy passengers (for instance) had to rely on cabin crew to keep them hydrated on 15 hour flights. Misery ensued.

Machines that now screen liquids are slower, but passengers don’t spend as much time taking out liquids and electronics and putting them back into backs when they make it through the checkpoint.

So when will similar changes come to the U.S.? TSA has been rolling out Analogic machines, which are slower and have the worst name ever, but do CT scans and mean that if the liquid ban ever had a real purpose they no longer do where these machines are available.

The agency awarded a $781 million contract last year, following a $198 million contract in 2021, and in 2018 each machine was reported to cost $350,000. However there’s no danger that they will be universally available across all U.S. airports any time soon.

Whether or not the U.S. eventually follows the U.K. in lifting liquid bans, I would not expect them to do so before these machines are universal. The agency’s position would likely be,

  • We can’t allow more liquids through the checkpoint unless these machines are being used
  • We can’t have different liquid rules at different airports
  • Therefore we can’t change liquid rules until these machines are at all airport

While the TSA has filed documents in federal court in the past suggesting they are aware of no known threats to aviation (undermining the claim that the lack of a repeat of 9/11 is somehow attributable to TSA itself), bureaucracies are inherently conservative. Any change in rules that is followed by a negative event becomes the fault of the bureaucracy, so rules changes are risky to bureaucrats. No one wants to be the one who loosened restrictions and gets blamed for future failures. It takes leadership at the highest levels to impose change.

The U.S. could come under some pressure when (1) this extends to Heathrow, given the number of U.S.-bound flights that would need separate screening for liquids, and (2) if a Schengen Area country were to do this.

The U.K. has a national directive, and is willing to have different rules at different airports. Some say that lifting restrictions at only a handful of airports isn’t useful to passengers, but I disagree.

First, even if you’re carrying the same bottle of liquids in both directions, I’ll gladly take the ability to carry it on one way – not checking bags once isn’t as good as not checking bags at all, but better than not checking them twice.

Second, and more importantly, I’ll gladly take the ability to carry on a bottle of wine or two and I promise that the bottles won’t need to return with me at the end of a trip! (They also might be bottles traveling one way home with me, having picked them up at my destination in the first place.)

(HT: @istrakhov)

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. I see opposition from vested interests who will lose revenue from people being free to bring their own liquids from off-airport locations — all in the name of security of course.

    The war on water (and shoes) have been the biggest aviation debacle of the past 20yrs

  2. One person with a liter of water: Forbidden. Ten people traveling together each with a tenth of a liter: Approved. Did this ever make sense?

    Anyway what is a “liquid”? A hard apple? A soft one? A banana? Maybe nobody would notice if the drink was frozen in pieces. After a while this whole thing gets pretty darn silly.

  3. These supposedly dangerous liquids get confiscated and tossed into a bin beside the checkpoint, not collected by specialists in hazmat suits. But yeah they believe a water bottle is a threat sure.

  4. The Golden Age of travel ended with 9/11. Sine then, I’ve made do with EK A380 and now QR, or premium economy domestic. All the while complying with TSA theater.

    Of course, time passes. Flyers today were born after 9/11 and, if conscious of 9/11, agree with politicians AOC and I. Omar.

    Can we get back to the Golden Age of drunk businessmen harassing stewardesses, already?

  5. Threat. So was my wife’s yogurt when this all started bi talked to an airline dispatcher who had his lunch confiscated (pasta sauce). And away we go.

  6. As long as you travel from LCY, you’ll be able to take home some English wine to enjoy!

    More seriously, there’s no good reason to keep the same rules at all airports. I travel extensively, and I find that most airports seem to have subtly different rules – doing that allows the employment of lots of people in the USA who specialize in shouting at passengers. If you standardize the rules, then maybe these people would lose their jobs.

  7. The TSA is fundamentally about exertion of control and erosion of civil liberties, combined with a dash of jobs program and funneling of public taxpayer funds to private contractors. The whole thing is security theater; TSA field agents fail an overwhelming majority of test scenarios.

    So from that proper vantage point, they will absolutely not give up any vestige of control over us. Meaning, of course, that it is more likely that they will ban something new than allow something previously banned. Get excited for the new snack ban so that your only option for food is an $8 bag of Doritos at a Hudson News.

  8. “In countries that did not adopt an offensive posture towards bottled water, separate screening had to be done at gates for flights headed to places including the U.S. and U.K.”

    For flights to the US, even having such an offensive posture in the “war on water” didn’t turn out to provide a guaranteed exemption from separate screenings at the gates for US-bound flights.

  9. The US will be following suit in sort of easing up on the “war on water” at some US airports.

  10. So if I bring two litres of wine on at LCY and connect at AMS for a flight to LAX, I will be overflying the US with the liquid in my carry on. Does the US have to sign off on this?

  11. @rdinsf – UK is not part of the Schengen area, so connect in say Frankfurt you will go through a checkpoint before reaching your U.S.-bound departure and will have to give up your liquids.

  12. @gary – AMS is set up so that if you come in from a “trusted country” you can connect to an outbound fight without going through security. The UK (and the US for that matter) are on that trusted country list. So travelers from the UK (or US) connecting at AMS to a non-Schengen flight do not go through security, passport control, or customs. Those coming from the US or UK connecting to a Schengen flight go through passport control but not security.

  13. The UK — as with Canada, the US, Singapore and some other places — is part of the EU/Schengen area’s one stop security/“clean” list, and so a LON-AMS/CPH/FRA-US traveler need not go through airport transit security screening.

    Not all Schengen airports are reliably configured to allow for one-stop security when coming in from a non-Schengen country and continuing on by air, but AMS is set up so it works for flights originating from “clean” list countries beyond the EU/Schengen area.

  14. If I have Global Entry, having passed all its associated background checks and etc., I am trusted so as to not be subjected to removal and inspection of shoes, belt, electronics, and travel-sized liquids in a single quart-sized ziplock.

    But I am not trusted so as to carry-on larger sizes of the same travel-sized liquids. Nor am I trusted to bring through security my unopened bottle of water.

    The only “winners” in this arrangement are 1) any airline that charges for the ‘now mandatory’ checked bag to bring along what I need (because of its larger capacity) and 2) Kiosks on the air-side that gladly sell me water for $3.00+/bottle that I can buy at Costco for 10 cents.

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