Dirty Water: LAG restrictions reaches their tin anniversary

In 2006, the European Commission introduced regulations to restrict the quantity of liquids being brought onto planes. The Liquid, Aerosol and Gel (LAG) restrictions were implemented as a temporary measure but continue to be enforced ten years later. Shannon Wandmaker was the Aviation Security Policy Assistant Director in charge of implementing LAG restrictions for the Australian Government in 2006/2007. He reflects on the efficacy of the regulations, their limitations and their future.

You may remember that, back in 2006, putting 100ml containers inside your re-sealable, plastic, one-litre bag was supposed to be a temporary solution until a technological fix could be found. Ten years later, the familiar cry of, “Laptops out, belts off, liquids out” can still be heard across passenger screening points around the world.

Why is this Temporary Fix Still with Us, and What Can We Expect in the Future?
On 9 August 2006 a plot to use acetone peroxide liquid explosives to conduct coordinated attacks on multiple aircraft over the Atlantic was foiled by United Kingdom (UK) security agencies. In the immediate aftermath a complete ban on liquids for departing passengers was imposed, but by 4 October the European Commission (EC) had moved to implement the liquid, aerosol and gel (LAG) restrictions we are all so familiar with.

The introduction of the 100ml/one litre LAG restrictions was always designed as a compromise measure that balanced, however clumsily, the need to dramatically reduce the amount of unverifiable liquids brought into the cabin of an aircraft with passenger desire to have liquids on board. At the time there was no viable way of differentiating good liquids from bad. The compromise allowed passengers to bring liquids onto an aircraft that, even if they were explosive, could not create an explosion that would bring down the plane.

By 30 March 2007 most countries had moved to introduce some form of restriction in line with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) requirements that had been introduced by that time.

One of the first implementation challenges was screener distraction. With screeners pushed to focus on identifying LAGs, there was the real possibility other threats were being missed. The hype surrounding rogue water bottles overshadowed all other screener functions, leading to situations where officers were more interested in shampoo than detonator cord.

In addition, while standard X-ray equipment could assist capable operators identify eye drops in the bottom corners of handbags, walk-through metal detectors (WTMDs) were wholly inadequate for the task of detecting the LAG threat. Some regulators attempted to address this through the implementation of random body searches, and then later through the half-hearted roll out of body scanners, while other regulators, both then and now, turned a blind eye to this gap in the system. Even the introduction of body scanners more than three years later was not a response to the LAG threat, but a response to the exploitation of the weakness of WTMD by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the 2009 underpants bomber.

One of the problems was that, in 2006, the technology to screen LAGs simply didn’t exist at ‘passenger throughput friendly’ levels. The EC tied themselves into regulatory knots trying to legislate the phasing out of LAG restrictions and mandating a technological solution. The deadlines for this phase out slipped multiple times over the years, and even today has not been fully achieved.

While the EC busied itself imposing arbitrary deadlines, other countries grappled with the issue of whether to impose inbound restrictions in addition to the outbound restrictions. Those that did, like Australia and the US, thus commenced the long dance down the nuanced road of not imposing extra-territorial measures legally, but nonetheless imposing them practically. By imposing LAG restrictions on airlines flying into a country, the real impact was to push the screening problem to the last port of departure (unless the captain was of a mind to have everyone throw their additional fluids out a side door as the aircraft entered sovereign airspace). This neatly sidestepped the legal issues, while condemning countries to years of international backlash from affected regulators.