Global Economics

EU May Repeal Ban on Liquids in Planes


The rules are annoying, tiresome, and apparently useless. So far, authorities have not caught a single passenger trying to carry explosives onboard

"Throw away my vodka?" The Moscow native was not about to let security officials at the Munich Airport confiscate his booze. So he opened it up—and drank it. The whole bottle. Right there. Based on European Union Regulation 1546/2006, at least, which restricts the amounts and types of liquids passengers can take on board airlines, the man was then legally allowed to fly. But the vodka enthusiast never made it to the plane after making the mistake of throwing his precious cargo back up at the nearest Lufthansa counter.

Since the EU introduced new regulations for carry-on luggage, scenes like this have been repeated time and again at German airports. In Frankfurt, an Italian woman slapped a security officer after he confiscated three jars of honey. In Munich, a passenger hurled his aftershave bottle through a glass partition. And, in Cottbus, a man gladly emptied his bottle of sparkling mineral water—over a security woman's head.

And it's not always just passengers behaving badly. In one incident, a pilot who was forced to hand over his pocket knife stormed over to his aircraft, removed the emergency axe from the cockpit, and slammed it down on the security official's desk.

When Rules Affect the Rule-Makers

During a security check at Cologne-Bonn Airport, European Parliament member Ulrich Stockmann of the Social Democrats recently had to throw an expensive bottle of red wine into the pre-boarding disposal bin. "That was all done according to the book," Stockmann admits, "but it was still totally ridiculous." Now he's had enough. In his campaign to scrap airport liquid restrictions, Stockman is teaming up with Georg Jarzembowski—also a member of the European Parliament who is the conservative Christian Democrats' point man on the Committee on Transport and Tourism.

Jarzembowski calls the measures at airports an "absurd song-and-dance routine," adding that: "There is no security benefit in examining grandma's tube of toothpaste." He says that the current fumbling and time-consuming repackaging in one-liter plastic bags determines "only the amount, but not the danger level" of the articles, adding that the current methods are "unsuitable and disproportionate."

Today's stringent security regulations were introduced in 2006 after two separate incidents. In 2001, Richard Reid, the notorious "shoe bomber," boarded an aircraft and tried—unsuccessfully—to detonate explosives concealed in the heels of his shoes. Five years later, police in Britain arrested 20 Islamists who were allegedly planning to use liquid explosives to blow up a number of commercial airlines. During the trial, however, prosecutors failed to convince a British court that the defendants actually intended to go through with the plan.

So far, German security authorities have refused to provide exact information on the success of the security checks—even in response to requests from members of the European Parliament. According to research by the parliamentarians themselves, though, there has not been a single documented case of passengers attempting to transport explosives on airplanes. "This security bureaucracy has taken on a life of its own," Stockmann complains. "And now we can't get rid of it."

Costly Resistance

The official handbook on checking passengers and their luggage is 180-pages long. Applying the rules included in this tome in a meticulous way has paralyzed and plagued airports across Europe. Security officials currently use conventional X-ray devices to examine passenger luggage, but this technology cannot tell the difference between holy water and nitroglycerin. Now the European Commission in Brussels wants to appoint a panel of experts to study the potential use of high-tech equipment that can detect the danger-level of liquids by measuring their specific densities. By 2010, EU Transport Commissioner Antonio Tajani wants to phase out all liquid checks.

Ironically, the last remaining bastion of resistance is in Berlin. As long as the new scanners are not ready for use, German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble intends to stick with the current practice. "Passengers will just have to adjust," says August Hanning, deputy secretary at the Interior Ministry.

This, however, is exactly the kind of attitude that passengers are having problems with. According to an unpublished report by the Berlin-based Association of German Commercial Airports (ADV), "six to seven tons" of liquid containers are collected by security personnel across Germany every day. This means that, each year, passengers must surrender articles the group estimates are valued at "between €100 million and €150 million" ($126-190 million).

Frankfurt International Airport alone has to dispose of some two tons of confiscated liquids every day. After airport security personnel were caught stealing seized bottles of booze, the Frankfurt instituted a policy of putting the containers into sealed containers and then transporting them to the city's waste-incineration facility.

Inverted Learning Curves

"We're on the receiving end of passengers' frustration," complains ADV spokesman Leif Erichsen, "and we haven't seen any progress among passengers in terms of their awareness of liquid-related issues." In fact, since liquids checks were first introduced, the numbers of seizures have risen rather than fallen.

And, as early as 2006, airport managers were already joking that the duty-free industry had presumably paid off British Islamists. The joke, of course, is that people who have been forced to relinquish their aftershave lotion, toothpaste or shampoo at the security check will need a replacement—and these articles can be purchased on the other side of the metal detectors in the airport shopping areas.

In any case, over the past two years, Germany's duty-free market leader, Gebr. Heinemann, has seen its sales rise significantly—by 15 percent—over the past two years—to €1.7 billion.

Provided by Spiegel Online—Read the latest from Europe's largest newsmagazine

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