April 4, 2023
There’s a litre of water plus big bottles of shampoo, sun lotion and mouthwash sloshing around next to the clothes and laptop in my green wheelie case, which has just disappeared into the mouth of the scanner at London City airport. I had even recklessly bunged in my makeup bag.
After years of being conditioned to travel with micro toiletries, my heart is beating faster. I’m waiting for a klaxon to go off and my unholy trinity of family-size Pantene, Soltan and Listerine, plus assorted cosmetics, to be unceremoniously dumped in one of the sin bins that have been stationed by security lanes since the mid-2000s.
But. Nothing. Happens. Apart from some raised eyebrows at the vat of mouthwash.
The east London hub has from Tuesday officially become the first mainstream UK airport to end the tyranny of tiny toiletries that has held sway since 2006 when the 100ml limit on liquids, pastes and gels in hand baggage was first introduced, after a foiled transatlantic bomb plot to use explosive liquids disguised as soft drinks.
Now passengers flying out of the Docklands airport can carry liquids and gels in containers of up to 2 litres in their hand baggage after it upgraded its baggage screening system to the latest CT (computed tomography) scanners, which provide a 3D image of the contents of passenger’s bag.
The technology also works for electronics, meaning the slow process of depositing belongings on to multiple trays has gone. Instead security staff cheerfully tell passengers to “leave everything inside your bags”, enabling people to file through at a much faster rate.
City announced the planned changeover last year, beginning with a trial security lane before gradually switching the rest over. With all four now upgraded, the airport claims to have “London’s fastest security experience”.
Waiting for her morning flight to Ibiza, Lynne Schey has just breezed through. “It was gorgeous, a morning present. I asked for a plastic bag to put things in but they said I didn’t need one. Phenomenal.”
Like the rest of us Schey had got used to the strict rules, with travellers “all part of the same army” carrying their makeup and medicines in a little plastic bag for all to see. “You started being more discerning, with no makeup and lots of little containers with little bits of this and that in,” she says. “Occasionally you would forget though and cause a pile up with a bottle of water.”
It’s the end of miniature toiletries, agrees Alison FitzGerald, the airport’s chief operating officer. The long-running restrictions resulted in a “very tense environment” in the security area. “It makes it really stressful. You’ve got to get all this stuff out of your bag and feel under pressure to be quick.” People were also upset at being made to throw away expensive items such as perfume or face cream.
Staff were always saying “you can’t take that, you can’t do that”, FitzGerald says, but now the conversations are more positive. With the new scanners able to process up to 550 trays an hour each lane, passengers are moving through the airport more quickly.
“We are getting 30% more passengers through [an hour],” says FitzGerald. “It’s much less stressful from a passenger point of view. The information that’s provided to the security officer is much more enhanced so the threat detection has improved significantly.”
With nearly 4 million passengers expected to pass through this year, London City is the first major UK airport to be able to fully relax the liquid rule. Smaller rival Teesside International dropped it in March after it replaced its two scanners. Trials are under way at other airports including Heathrow.
However, other hubs stressed that for now, current restrictions remain in place, and passengers must still remove tablets, laptops and liquids from their cabin baggage, with the usual 100ml limit and plastic bag rules. At peak travel times, like this weekend’s Easter getaway, travellers are greeted with bins overflowing with bottles of water and outsized toiletries from those who forgot the rules, perhaps because Covid stopped them from travelling for so long.
In the UK, the government has set a deadline of June 2024 for large airports to install the new screening equipment, spelling the eventual end to the 100ml rule. To date, Australia and the Netherlands are the only other countries to have mandated the upgrade, although trials are taking place around the world.
This extended timeframe for introduction across the UK and world means a period of confusion for travellers who may encounter different security regimes on the flight out and on the way home, says Nicky Kelvin, head of travel advice website The Points Guy.
“Anybody traveling with hand baggage will need to check what the current trial or rule is for the place they are travelling from and to,” he says. “If you are a transit passenger you will need to be even more careful. Of course you can still check a bag in if you need to, but it’s expensive.”
Sisters Laura and Ruth Stephenson are eating breakfast in the City departure lounge, waiting for their flight to Florence to be called. Laura says she was “amazed how quickly” they had got through security. Ruth used to travel with a “massive bag” of makeup and skincare but is more restrained these days. The world may be changing again but for this trip anyway her beauty essentials still fit into the “smallest bag known to man” she says, waving an airport issue plastic bag that is barely a quarter full.
During the pandemic, hand sanitiser shot to the top of the list of confiscated items. Weirdly, Marmite and snow globes are a big problem, too, says FitzGerald. Marmite counts as a paste under the liquid regulations, while snow globes are not marked with a volume measure. “We always had to confiscate them even if they were small,” she says.
Both the old and new generation of scanners use X-ray imaging, but the camera in the older machines is stationary, resulting in a 2D image, whereas in a CT scanner it spins.
“It takes a number of photos in a very short amount of time of your cabin baggage so we can create a 3D image but also do a bunch of detection to look for bad things,” says Jonathan Stone, aviation solutions division manager at the US firm Leidos, which supplied the new scanners at London City. The new machines also put “detection capability into the hands of algorithms and science as opposed to relying solely on humans”.
The new scanners come at a price, with an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 scanners to replace globally at a cost of about £200,000 a machine. However, the investment should be recouped through higher takings in airport shops and lower staffing costs as the new systems require fewer security workers to monitor the equipment and herd passengers.
“It’s making the traveling public much safer, number one, and number two, offering our airport customers the ability to modernise and optimise their security operations,” says Stone. “There will be a return on that investment as passengers spend more on duty free and less time in line for security.”
For me, there was no Ibiza or Florence; it was just a dummy run. However, it did provide a salutary reminder of why leaving liquids at home can be no bad thing: something blue leaked all over my clothes.