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Airport ban on carrying liquids is permanent, warn security chiefs

Barrie Clement / London Independent | August 25 2006

The 200 million passengers who pass through British airports each year will face high levels of security "permanently", senior government officials say.

Passengers will be ban-ned from taking liquids bought outside the security screening zone on an "enduring basis", security experts at the Department for Transport (DfT) said.

The officials indicated that any relaxation of the rules would depend on the development of technology able to detect all potentially explosive liquids, the perceived level of threat and the experience gained from operating the procedures.

At present, the equipment was only partly successful. "It is a big step to go from a concept that works in the lab to one that works in a complex airport environment," the experts said.

The threat of liquid explosives would remain. It was not possible to "uninvent" a threat. Passengers were also warned that the rules restricting them to one laptop-size piece of hand luggage was likely to remain because it was far easier and more efficient to screen smaller bags.

In a briefing at the DfT, officials compared an X-ray picture of a large bag with that of a smaller one. Under the present security regime, the larger bag, which contained difficult-to-see hand cream, after-shave and shower gel, would have been rejected and a time-consuming hand search would have been made. The officials said separate screening would continue for electronic equipment to simplify scrutiny of hand luggage.

Passengers are becoming increasingly impatient about the level of security and the varying ways it is applied. The department's ban on liquids in hand luggage, will remain except for those bought in departure lounges.

Despite concerns about airport contract staff, officials say employees are vetted and screened, and some are body-searched before their shifts. The officials expressed confidence in screening methods used on all goods on sale inside the security zone.
One senior civil servant differed with a colleague, saying measures banning liquids were "not necessarily permanent" because the methods of detection would evolve. At present, passengers will be able to take on board only baby food and prescribed medicines.

The DfT said the recent threat from liquid explosives formed a "step change" in the threats faced by airline passengers. Terrorists were becoming increasingly "innovative and ingenious" in concealing and disguising the components of bombs.

But terrorists first attempted to use liquid explosive to blow up aircraft in the so-called "Bojinka" plot 11 years ago in Manila.

One technology expert at the DfT said: "We are not trying to prevent people taking Coca-Cola on board, but some potentially dangerous liquids are very difficult to distinguish from ordinary liquids. It remains a challenge. Screening bottles individually is not practical."

Officials told journalists: "There is a continuing level of severe risk. The threat is real, deadly and enduring." There was a balance to be struck, they said, between the convenience of passengers, the continuing development of the industry and the safety of both passengers and of employees.

Although a tougher regime would remain, adjustments to security would be made in due course without compromising safety.

Representatives of European Union countries and the US would be trying to develop "effective, realistic and achievable" common standards.

n A 12th person has been charged over the alleged airliner bomb plot. Umair Hussain was charged under the Terrorism Act 2000 with failing to disclose information about his brother Nabeel Hussain. On Tuesday, a total of 11 people were remanded in custody over the alleged plot at City of Westminster magistrates' court. Umair Hussain will appear at the same court today.

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