We have the technology to end the ban on liquids at airports, so why is it still in place?

(CNN) — A quiet revolution is underway in the way we move through airport security – but most of us won’t even notice it.

The requirement to put liquids in 100 milliliter containers and take electronic devices out of bags has been a staple of air travel for nearly 16 years. However, at many airports around the world, new technology is already in place that will remove this rule, and some are now starting to drop the ban.

In October 2021, Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland quietly announced its new state-of-the-art scanning security system, or CT, installed at a cost of £2.5 million euros (about 2.6 million dollars).

Liquids and electronics could now stay in bags, with no liquid volume restrictions, and carry-on bags could be passed through scans in new larger trays.

It is not the first time that Shannon, Europe’s most westerly airport, has been a global pioneer. The world’s first duty-free shop opened here in 1947, and in 2009 it became the first airport in the world, outside of the Americas, to provide full pre-clearance facilities in the United States.

“This is one of the projects Shannon Group has undertaken during the time of severe aviation travel restrictions,” Nandi O’Sullivan, group communications manager, told CNN Travel.

Implemented during the pandemic, it wasn’t until international travel resumed in March 2022 that the airport move began to attract more attention. Donegal Airport in the northwest of Ireland has also followed suit by installing new technology and abandoning the 100 milliliter rule.

Better security, shorter lines

So how does this new CT technology work, which airports are already using it, and why aren’t more places easing their restrictions?

Kevin Riordan, head of checkpoint solutions at Smiths Detection, the company that supplies Shannon’s security equipment and a global leader in CT scanning technology, explains.

Much like the CT scans we know from hospitals, airport security scanners are replacing conventional 2D X-rays with much more accurate 3D imaging.

“You can get a lot of information from a 2D image, but if you have a 3D object in your hand, you get a lot more information,” says Riordan.

“From a security perspective, they’re able to make very specific decisions about what’s in your bag: is it threatening material or is it benign. That’s better security, better decisions.”

A woman going through security at Ireland’s Shannon Airport.

Courtesy of Shannon Group

Shannon Airport estimates the time spent going through passenger security will be cut in half with the new technology, and unsurprisingly Riordan says passenger feedback has been overwhelmingly positive at airports where the new machines have been tested.

The liquids ban was introduced worldwide after a transatlantic terror plot was foiled in August 2006, in which a group planned to detonate liquid explosives on board several flights. It’s become part of everyday life, but many of us fondly remember when security lines were faster and packing luggage was easier.

Gradual deployment

The CT technology started making headlines in 2018. The scanners were tested at major airports including London Heathrow, New York JFK and Schiphol in Amsterdam. The following year, Heathrow announced it was investing £50m (about $62m) in a phased rollout of the technology at its airports with a 2022 deadline.

In July 2020, it was announced that London Southend Airport would become the first in Britain to abandon the practice of requiring passengers to remove their liquids and electronic devices from bags before going through security.

Amsterstam Schiphol has also been using CT technology at all of its checkpoints since 2020, senior airport spokesman Dennis Muller told CNN. But unlike Southend or Donegal, it is a major international hub. It is no longer mandatory for its passengers to observe liquid restrictions, but the airport advises them to use 100 milliliter containers anyway, to avoid problems when flying to other jurisdictions.

“The Netherlands probably reacted faster than most countries,” says Riordan. “The UK has actually mandated this technology by 2024, which would remove all restrictions on what you can carry on.”

Once more countries are able to complete the full nationwide rollout of the technology, we will start to see more airports and regions start to see the ban lifted or eased – but regulatory changes won’t happen quickly or universally, and it’s a changing landscape.

Staff constraints

“It’s a dynamic picture that we’re still trying to figure out, what the impact has been over the last two years,” says Riordan. “Passenger numbers are recovering at many airports (probably) faster than expected.” Staff shortages have been widely reported at airports and airlines around the world, leading many to predict a “summer of chaos” to come.
Smiths Detection is one of a small handful of companies in the field of CT technology, with American company Leidos being one of the main competitors – last year it won a $470.7 million TSA contract to deploy screening technology at checkpoints in the United States.

“It’s an ongoing process for us as suppliers,” says Riordan. Current staffing constraints “drive us to design much more efficient operations. CT technology is the best available, but is there a smart way to use it, to optimize it?

One innovation is multiplexing: “You run a stream of bags through a machine and the images are sent to (three or four) different operators, not just one operator per machine. It’s a way of trying to compensate this shift in staff and to increase in passengers.”

CT security scanners introduced at Ireland's Shannon Airport

Shannon has introduced four new Smiths Detection EDS CB safety CT scanners.

Courtesy of Shannon Group

business case

The cost of implementing this new technology is not cheap, and smaller airports, already struggling after Covid, may find upgrades difficult.

Each will have its own scheduled cycle of upgrades and innovations to consider – covering all the many constraints and requirements of a 21st century hub.

When nations demand the upgrade, more airports will be under pressure, but until then, at the level of an individual airport, it is the business case. Efficiency and customer satisfaction are of course of paramount importance, but shorter security lines also mean that passengers get to the airside more quickly – and spend more money in the shops and restaurants of the airport. airport. “It’s different in different parts of the world. It will happen at different speeds,” says Riordan.

It’s too early to predict how quickly things will progress, but with airports like Shannon and Schiphol in the lead, we could see developments in the coming years – and with the industry picking up, that will probably sooner rather than later.

CNN has contacted Heathrow for comment on this story.

All images courtesy of Shannon Group


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