Liquid Explosive Detection: the role of technology

The potential use of liquid explosives by terrorists has, since 2006, become an increasing concern for those tasked with protecting civil aviation. Liquid explosives are relatively easy to conceal given their close resemblance to benign liquids already carried by most passengers and some are powerful agents able to cause as much damage as military grade explosives. Amir Neeman takes us through developments in the technologies designed to detect them. The first terrorist attack using liquid explosives was in 1987 against Korean Airlines and, since then, there have been several such attacks and attempted attacks, most notably the trans-Atlantic plot of 2006 which resulted in a raft of policy changes and restrictions to carry-on baggage. However, the significant restrictions on liquids, aerosols and gels (LAGs) carried in carry-on bags, while necessary to address the liquid explosive threat, have come with a high price tag. They created operational inefficiencies at security screening checkpoints by lowering overall throughput and increasing false alarm and bag search rates.

They required a more labour-intensive and thus costly screening process and have worsened the passenger experience for (most) travellers. While many passengers, airlines, airports and airport vendors have adjusted to these restrictions, there remains a fundamental need to implement liquid explosive detection systems (LEDS) in order to be able to fully or partially lift these restrictions and allow for a better flow of passengers and commerce. Major aviation security regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, the European Commission (EC) and the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), Transport Canada and the Australian Department of Transport as well as organisations such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) are more than ever working to harmonize explosive detection standards and specifically have recently announced a joint effort to coordinate the phased approach in lifting LAGs restrictions.

A Global Approach

One of the leading regulators on this topic, the EC, has outlined a pathway for the removal of LAGs restrictions in carry-on luggage. By 31 January 2014, Phase 1 of the lifting of LAGs restrictions is to be implemented whereby any traveller transferring at an EU airport, having arrived from a non-EU airport, will be able to carry duty free LAGs purchased within in the preceding 36 hours as long as they are sealed within an ICAO specification Security Tamper Evident Bag (STEB), in addition to any baby food and medicines needed for the flight. By 31 January 2015 Phase 2 will be implemented whereby passengers will be able to carry clear liquids within a clear container. Finally by January 2016 all LAGs restrictions will be lifted. Before those deadlines, airports must have deployed LEDS capable of adequately screening such LAGs. Recently ICAO has issued a statement that Australia, Canada, the United States and the EU are in the process of implementing a multi-phase technology based LAGs screening approach and intend to progressively relax LAGs restrictions at airports in their respective jurisdictions. The LAGs screening technologies to be used will meet standards agreed to between these regulators.


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