Air Safety

That's Not a Bomb, It's a Bottle of Bourbon


If you dream of the day when you’ll once again breeze through airport security with your Head & Shoulders and anti-itch cream safely tucked away in a carry-on instead of a Ziploc bag for all the world to see, take note: Help is on the way. In Europe, airlines and groups representing airport shops and restaurants are agitating for advanced security scanners that can sniff out liquid explosives inside luggage. In theory, that means travelers would be free to bring water bottles, booze, and full-sized toiletries aboard—without having to open their bags for screening—since the devices could tell the difference between a canister of liquid explosives and that bottle of Chanel No. 5 you think you got a deal on at the duty-free shop. There is only thing that could spoil this idyllic scene—no such machine exists.

Americans have largely met each new airport security rule with a sigh of acquiescence. Not so in Europe, where politicians have been deluged with complaints from Duty Free shop owners who say they’re losing sales on perfumes and liquor, and angry passengers who’ve had their belongings confiscated by security guards. The EU’s governing body has given airports until Apr. 29, 2013, to install scanners that will ease restrictions on liquids at European airports without compromising security. There are already machines that can detect liquid explosives as long as they aren’t buried inside luggage. Those would be fine under the EU’s new rule; but the air travel industry is keeping up pressure for more sophisticated scanners. The hope is that by the time the rule takes effect, technology that can pick out harmful substances inside carry-on bags will be ready. At least, “that’s what a lot of the airport operators are holding out for,” says Ben Vogel, editor of Jane’s Airport Review magazine in London.

Several companies are competing to capture the $1.4 billion potential market for the machines. At the moment, the closest thing is made by Safran’s Morpho unit, but the current model is too big to fit inside an airport checkpoint. The Paris-based company is working on a scaled-down version it aims to test in a European airport late next year. Other manufacturers, including Rapiscan Systems (OSIS), based in California, and Smiths Group in London, are racing to build similar machines. “Trying to put liquids and electronics back in the bag is very much what we’re working on now,” says Peter Kant, executive vice-president at Rapiscan, which produces more than half the scanners at U.S. airports.

Washington is watching closely. Transportation Security Administration officials have coveted in-luggage liquid scanners ever since militants botched a 2006 attempt to blow up airliners using explosives made with hydrogen peroxide, which led to the current rules. Michael P. Jackson, who was deputy secretary of the U.S. Homeland Security Dept. at the time of the foiled plot, believed the technology was “imminent” when he left in October 2007. Now president of the security firm Firebreak Partners, Jackson says the machines have been slow in coming because manufacturers haven’t had the financial incentive to make them. U.S. travelers haven’t pressured the TSA to allow more liquids on planes in part because they’ve become so accustomed to airport restrictions, he says.

In September, Jackson suggested the U.S. government fund a contest, giving a prize to the manufacturer that can develop an in-bag liquids detector, a development he said would “revolutionize” air travel. TSA spokesman Greg Soule says the agency has spent $178 million on advanced technology X-ray machines at 97 out of 450 U.S. airports. Those machines can be upgraded to perform in-bag liquids detection once software is ready, Soule says. It’s not known how far off that may be.

European travelers may have to live with a compromise: They’ll be allowed to bring larger bottles on board but will still have to remove them from their bags for inspection. Not good enough, says the air travel industry. “We don’t want travelers to be sorting things out like they’re doing laundry,” says Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Assn., whose members include American Airlines (AMR) and Delta Air Lines (DAL). Airport shops claim they lose 16¢ for each minute a passenger is idling in a checkpoint line instead of buying gum, magazines, and bottles of scotch. Jackson says the EU might have to push back enforcement of the new rule if the scanners aren’t ready for market in time. “Deadlines that impose solutions that don’t exist,” he says, “are just aspirational.”

The bottom line: Makers of airport scanners are competing to capture a $1.4 billion market for machines that detect explosive liquids in luggage.

Bykowicz is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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