Why are liquids now banned from flights?
August 10, 2006 7:53 AM   Subscribe

Why are liquids now banned from flights?

So by now most people will have seen the news - liquids and gels are banned on UK flights, US flights and Canadian flights. So, what's so dangerous about liquids? Transport Canada says beverages, shampoo, suntan lotion and more. What exactly is the security risk with liquids? How much damage could you do with 400 ml of anything?
posted by GuyZero to Travel & Transportation (36 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Terrorist plot using liquid explosives found. News at 11.

The plot involved hiding liquid explosives disguised as beverages or other common objects in carry-on luggage, Chertoff told reporters.

Supposedly will be temporary.
posted by zabuni at 7:56 AM on August 10, 2006

They may be worried about binary explosives - they don't look like explosive compounds separately, but mix two different liquids together and you can get something quite powerful. A chemical sniffer should be able to spot ordinary liquid explosive, but a binary mixture would be tougher.

And you'd be surprised how little liquid it can take to do a whole lot of damage. 400 mL of nitroglycerine will make quite a mess out of a large part of an airliner, for instance. Not that anybody's going to carry 400 mL of nitro around.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 7:57 AM on August 10, 2006

According to the Wall St Journal (sub. required):
The alleged plot to bring down several trans-Atlantic flights simultaneously involved liquid explosives, according to a British government official. Security experts say the most likely substance the alleged plotters sought to use was liquid nitroglycerin.

According to Bob Ayers, an associate fellow at the Chatham House in London and vice president for homeland security for Selex Sensors and Airborne Systems, the most likely scenario was that terrorists planned to bring sealed containers of liquid nitroglycerin on board planes in their hand baggage. They could have then used the electric current from a simple device, such as a travel alarm clock or a cellphone, to detonate the container.

posted by blue mustard at 8:10 AM on August 10, 2006

Because it's been done before. They're afraid it's been perfected.
posted by nightwood at 8:17 AM on August 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

How the hell does one carry liquid nitroglycerin around without being blown up? Seriously the walk from his terroristmobile to the airport should be enough set it off, right? High school chemistry coming back to me here, is there a safe way to store and move nitroglycerin that wouldn't be obvious? I don't think you can just put it in a water bottle ...
posted by geoff. at 8:20 AM on August 10, 2006

It's happened before. In that case, innocuous bottles of contact lens solution were used to transport nitroglycerin stabilized with cotton.

Presumably, the new puffer machines will help with this as they're designed to detect trace chemicals on skin and clothing. If they can be configured to detect the components of binary explosives, we can all get back carrying our shampoo.

Or, like box cutters and nail clippers, we'll lose interest and/or figure out better ways to screen passengers.
posted by aladfar at 8:21 AM on August 10, 2006

In the MeFi thread about the news, someone linked to an article about the terror plot Oplan Bojinka, which used contact lens solution bottles to hide nitroglycerin. There are lots of details there.
posted by mediareport at 8:22 AM on August 10, 2006

I already said they're not going to use nitroglycerin. It was an illustration of how a small amount of liquid explosive can be enough to cause as much damage as you'd need.

There are liquid explosives that are both stable and more powerful than nitro.
posted by Dipsomaniac at 8:22 AM on August 10, 2006

GuyZero writes "So, yeah, I'm with Merdryn too, which is why I asked. What a pain in the ass when you're travelling on business. I may simply skip taking toiletries and buy them on arrival as opposed to checking luggage."

Someone should start a business selling pre-packed toilet kits to people arriving at airports on business trips. They could even take pre-orders for preferred brands. They meet you at the gate, hand you your bag, and bid you good day (this idea is for sale; make me an offer).

Back on topic, shagoth writes "Why would terrorists attack the most heavily guarded civilian target? Aren't there many places that people gather that would be better targets and easier to attack?"

The idea is precisely to prove that even the safest places are not safe enough.
posted by Songdog at 8:28 AM on August 10, 2006

Songdog. It's risk assessment gone totally awry. The economic impact of fudgehammering business travel is much greater than the impact risk of an actual attack. What's the lost productivity to having to check luggage that just yesterday was acceptable to carry on? 60 minutes of a business traveler's day lost minimum. Every day, thousands and thousands of human hours lost. That economic cost will go unmeasured but is astronomical in size.
posted by shagoth at 8:34 AM on August 10, 2006

Simple. The terrorists were hiding potential explosive liquids in common, ordinary containers that people use every day on airplanes. It is impossible for the police to inspect every single container that shows up in an airport, so they put a ban instead to minimize manpower and resource use. This is another example of giving up free movement which we take so for granted, in return for security. Sometimes it's a necessary evil, like no shouting fire in a movie theater infringes on rights of free speech but not to a point where anybody significantly cares.

Terrorists don't have to blow up planes to be effective. They just have to terrorize. Guess today they did that. =(
posted by ZachsMind at 8:48 AM on August 10, 2006

Merdryn writes: "I refuse to check my bags when I'm on a 3-4 day trip, and I carry my own toothpaste/shampoo and such with me on my carry on bags.".

Sorry Merdryn , not any more you don't, at least not if you're travelling in the very near future, and if you have a baby bottle then you had better be prepared to taste the contents in front of the 'security' people.

For GuyZero's original question, it wouldn't take much explosive to cause a catastrophic decompression at 45,000 feet over the Atlantic, and bring down a loaded jumbo jet and all its contents. This would effectively put somewhat of a damper on all trans-atlantic flights for some time to come. Hence the reaction of the security services in the UK and the US.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 8:48 AM on August 10, 2006

How the hell does one carry liquid nitroglycerin around without being blown up?

Very carefully. Didn't you ever see Wages of Fear?

Wikipedia lists some other liquid explosives.

Of course it doesn't make much sense to ban all liquids from airplane luggage because some of them are explosive; after all, there are plenty of explosive solids, too. Anyone still expecting air travel security regulations to make any sense hasn't been paying attention.
posted by sfenders at 8:56 AM on August 10, 2006

[a few comments removed, the question is pretty straightforward, take complaints or comments about air security to the blue or the grey or email]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 9:01 AM on August 10, 2006

While I was watching this story on the news this morning, they said that if you bought a hamburger at the airport's food court and wanted to bring some ketchup packets onto the plane, at this time they would be confiscated because they've got a sort of liquid in them.

At first I thought that was totally ridiculous, but then I thought about it a bit. This terror threat was JUST discovered. So far it's not widely known what kinds of liquids could be used to create explosives, just that people were planning on doing it. At this point, it's easier to ban everything that could even remotely be used to make explosives; exceptions can be ruled out later. But it's too soon after the fact for airport officials to have time to ponder over every bottle of shampoo and decide whether it's allowed on board. If exceptions were allowed, I can only imagine the crowds of people lining up to get their items exempt from the new rule.

I would hate to be at an airport right now and have to deal with brand-new restrictions. But it won't last forever -- just as long as it takes to fully understand this new kind of threat and put it into perspective. (Wasn't there a time when everyone had to remove their shoes before flying? Now it's only hard-soled ones. The restriction eventually eased up a bit.)
posted by phatkitten at 9:03 AM on August 10, 2006

So you bring a baby bottle. Bad stuff on the bottom, good stuff on the top, and you taste the stuff on the top.

What I don't understand is this - doesn't this new rule mean that the so-called sterile area is no longer sterile? If you can purchase a non-sterile item in the sterile area, doesn't that mean everyone has to be re-searched before boarding?
posted by dmd at 9:49 AM on August 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm starting to feel that flying simply isn't safe. End of story.

There are no guarantees and every time this happens, there is so much confusion that it seems even the people in charge don't know what to do.
posted by agregoli at 9:55 AM on August 10, 2006

Why isn't anyone thinking about nature's pocket?

This terror threat was JUST discovered.

Ya.. Not exactly..

The terrorists were just arrested. That is by no means equivalent to the terror plot being recently discovered. On top of that, existence of the terror plot has no bearing on knowledge of a particular threat technology. See the Oplan Bojinka link, or all the "it happened before" stuff.

I'm thinking that your arguments do make a certain sense if you are talking about people with no source of information or training beyond what we hear in the media..
posted by Chuckles at 9:56 AM on August 10, 2006

Shagoth, I'm not disagreeing with you. I think we're just talking about slightly different aspects of this.

One of the first things I thought of when I heard about the liquid ban this morning was babies. NPR/BBC mentioned a woman stranded waiting to depart London with her four children, one of whom is an infant. You simply can't prevent people from bringing breastmilk or formula along when they're travelling with a baby unless you're willing to prohibit their travel altogether (I'm not saying you might not need to do this, but I haven't heard anyone making that case yet). Fortunately later on I heard a journalist reporting that baby formula and medicine are allowed on board, subject to a great deal of scrutiny. I trust that breastmilk is allowed as well.
posted by Songdog at 10:12 AM on August 10, 2006

Hey, 543?

Yeah, it actually takes a fair amount of damage to bring down an airliner.

Ok, yes, non-transat flight, yadda yadda, but *really* old airframe, too...
posted by baylink at 10:16 AM on August 10, 2006

Although I'm a crank on this issue (okay, among several), I'm hoping this will pass jess's smell test as I mean it as a serious answer.

Why are liquids now banned from flights?

Because it's easier to flail around and scrutinize the Threat of the Hour than develop a consistent and thoughtful security policy that addresses reasonable concerns though examination, policing, and - least likely of all - an acceptance that all security is a trade-off between preventing danger and allowing life to progress.

Complicating this matter is that the TSA has had consistent trouble hiring and keeping screeners and the staff they do have occupy a financial slot marginally above burger-flippers but with much less desirable duties and work hours. Here's a posting for a security screener in my area from USAJOBS.

SV-1802, Pay Band D
Annual Salary Range - $23,600-$35,400 per year*
Salary Range does not include locality pay of 17.50%
Under this appointment you are eligible for health insurance and life insurance

Work Schedule: Work schedules will consist of Full-time (40 hours per week). Full-time work consists of shift-work on any day from Sunday through Saturday, which may include irregular hours, nights and weekend shifts, changing shifts,
and split shifts (e.g., some duty hours are completed in the morning while the others are completed during a night shift).

So, for a corrected max salary of $41,595 you can work any day of the week, possibly night shifts and possibly split shifts. While it's not bad pay, it doesn't attract candidates at the level of local law enforcement and they're insufficiently trained to handle things much more challenging than the Threat of the Hour. From the job posting: "all training requirements including 56-72 hours of
classroom training, 112-128 hours of on-the-job training, and initial certification testing"

72 hours means less than 2 full work weeks of training. While their focus is somewhat specialized, they have to scrutinize people constantly for a work shift at a level far beyond what the average law enforcement officer does in much smaller quantities and police officers get a LOT more training. There's also a lot of turnover in these positions, meaning you have a workforce whose average experience is short. All of these things contribute to spotty examination.

Also complicating matters is that we're relying upon screeners to detect threats almost impossible to spot in a walk-by and that really need to be watched for by air marshals. Which runs up again against TSA's inability to hire and keep employees. Yatta yatta.

Finally, there's the matter of pure security theater. A goodly portion of flyer screening exists to give users a warm fuzzy that they're being looked after and send a message to possible evildoers that they're being watched.

I lack the restraint to get into any kind of discussion of this without causing jess to delete me, however there is value to this in some quantity. We can sneer at uneducated citizens but their continued spending is necessary for the economy to go forward and almost every industry has baloney methods to placate the ignorant.

Case in point: look on the side of your shaving cream container and you'll probably see a message "CONTAINS NO CFCs." Well, if you're here in the US that's probably because they've been banned as a propellant for about twenty years now. But there's still a goodly portion of the citizenry who think aerosol containers are bad for the atmosphere. Some of those same people aren't going to feel safe on a plane unless someone's scrutinizing that guy's Evian bottle and checking his ID, no matter how unlikely the threat might be.
posted by phearlez at 10:24 AM on August 10, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm thinking that your arguments do make a certain sense if you are talking about people with no source of information or training beyond what we hear in the media..

I am. Most of the people who fly on commercial airliners are civilians who probably don't pay close attention to things like this until it (a) it affects them, or (b) the media breaks a huge story like this.

When I said that this plot was "JUST discovered," I should have said that the discovery was just made public, and that air passengers are just now being affected by precautionary measures attached to it.
posted by phatkitten at 10:31 AM on August 10, 2006

So you bring a baby bottle. Bad stuff on the bottom, good stuff on the top, and you taste the stuff on the top.

Seriously. This seems like the easiest thing in the world to do (especially if the bottle contains a false bottom). Why ban all liquids, and then allow such a huge loophole?

They (TSA, etc.) may know which kind of liquids are innocuous, but maybe they don't trust their on the ground security check people to distinguish. Blanket rule is easier to carry out.
posted by Amizu at 10:45 AM on August 10, 2006

ok, I'm sitting at the Albuquerque Airport right now and yes, it sucked. While I can ordinarilly get to the airport 45 minutes before my departure... today it took me that long to get rfom the door to my gate.

Everything is being confiscated. Liquids, gels, semi-solids. Nail polish, lipstick, chapstick, deodorant, hair products, eye drops, etc. And of course there isn't enough information available for people who have to travel with insulin or prescription eye-drops.

I do hope it's temporary. With the amount of travel I've been logging I can't imagine having to check bags every time. Ugh.
posted by FlamingBore at 11:11 AM on August 10, 2006

So you bring a baby bottle. Bad stuff on the bottom, good stuff on the top, and you taste the stuff on the top.

I'm guessing that you'd need to have an actual baby with you for this plan to work. That might complicate things.

Or not. They have these terror plots planned years in advance, I'm sure they wouldn't mind recruiting a volunteer to spend 9 months creating a terror prop.
posted by necessitas at 5:06 PM on August 10, 2006

Here's what I've pieced together. It's major speculation on my part, but it at least makes some sense. What they were going to try to smuggle was hydrogen peroxide and acetone and a small quantity of catalyst. If you mix all three together it spontaneously forms acetone peroxide. The trimer, TATP, is a favorite explosive of Palestinian terrorists.

The stuff is really dangerous, and I get the impression that if you do this at room temperature it will spontaneously detonate. But even if it doesn't, the dimer is so unstable that all you'd have to do is slap it to set it off. (The trimer isn't a lot more stable; it's still much more sensitive than nitroglycerine.)

So you just need two moderate large bottles (for the acetone and the peroxide) and one small one for the catalyst. Go into the bathroom (make sure it's a bathroom on the wall) and pour all three into the sink (the catalyst last), and you've just put a major hole in the side of the aircraft, and have at least a decent chance of making it break up in mid-air. Even if you don't outright destroy the jet, you've started a major fire and probably killed a lot of passengers. And maybe the fire will eventually kill most of the rest or even destroy the jet.

Maybe there's a bathroom which is sufficiently close to a fuel tank so that you set that off with your explosion.

Would it really work? I don't know. But I do know that I wouldn't want to be on a jet when someone tried it.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:21 PM on August 10, 2006

The 1995 Bojinka plot involved liquid explosives. Why have we been allowed to take liquids on planes for the last 11 years? Why haven't the precautionary measures been put in place before now?
posted by kirkaracha at 7:24 AM on August 11, 2006

Kirkaracha, are you suggesting that because mistakes were made in 1995 that we are obligated to continue those mistakes today?
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:10 AM on August 11, 2006

No, the suggestion is that the current response is disingenuous.
posted by Merdryn at 11:57 AM on August 11, 2006

pour all three into the sink (the catalyst last), and you've just put a major hole in the side of the aircraft, and have at least a decent chance of making it break up in mid-air. Even if you don't outright destroy the jet, you've started a major fire and probably killed a lot of passengers.

That seems unlikely. Drinking bottle-sized amounts of that stuff haphazardly mixed by pouring them down a drain might make a hole in the fuselage, but the chances of it bringing down the plane seem remote. Fire is somewhat unlikely, since as wikipedia says "very little heat is created by the explosive decomposition of TCAP." It would be much more effective to mix the stuff in the sink under slightly more controlled conditions, then seal the product in one of those bottles and attempt to detonate it wherever it would do the most damage. Finding some structural weakness in the aircraft and exploiting it would greatly increase the damage, with little extra effort. In that case, then I would guess that 1-litre bottles of acetone and peroxide should be enough, based on the fact that according to wikipedia, somebody believes it was 4.5 kilograms (about 4 litres) of TATP that did this. A suspicious ketchup packet on the other hand, should probably not be cause for alarm. An aircraft is somewhat stronger than a bus, and I don't know what ratio of product to ingredients can be expected, so it's just a guess. Contrary to what I've seen reported, merely causing decompression at altitude probably wouldn't be enough to kill everyone.
posted by sfenders at 1:05 PM on August 11, 2006

are you suggesting that because mistakes were made in 1995 that we are obligated to continue those mistakes today?

No, I'm asking the questions I asked. Current media frenzy aside, the British and US governments have been aware of this threat for 11 years, and apparently done nothing--including banning liquids from airplanes--to prevent it.

Ramzi Yousef did a successful test run in December 1994, and the planned attacks on multiple airplanes in January 1995 were avoided only because of an accidental fire in the plotters' hotel room less than two weeks before the scheduled date for the attacks.

As an American, I'm concerned that my government apparently learned nothing from the narrow miss in 1995. Clinton had five years to address this threat, and didn't do anything. Bush has had six years, and hasn't done anything, despite his constant claims to be defending us against terrorism. (Maybe that shouldn't be surprising, considering how both administrations also failed to put measures into place to prevent hijackings despite hijacking an airliner and crashing it into CIA headquarters being another planned component of the Bojinka plot.)

So, it seems to me that either this liquid explosive threat isn't as great as it's being hyped to be, or the government's made up of incompetent fuckups. I suspect the latter, but I think we deserve an explanation of why they didn't do anything in the intervening 11 years.
posted by kirkaracha at 3:40 PM on August 11, 2006

I'm pretty sure the threat of terrorism on commercial airlines has been around since before 1995. What did you expect them to do? Create a list of people who aren't allowed to fly? Check everyone's ID at the gate? Install devices that sniff for common explosives? It isn't easy to stop people bringing bombs aboard airplanes and blowing themselves up if they really want to. Prohibiting all carry-on baggage might possibly make a difference, I suppose. If you really want an answer as to why people in America, including those with the power to influence what security measures are used, might accept that today when they wouldn't ten years ago, I suggest reading transcripts of every speech by the current President. The kind of media attention that terrorism has gotten in recent years can turn many people into raving paranoid lunatics, but it does take time.
posted by sfenders at 4:49 PM on August 11, 2006

sfenders, you misunderstood me. I didn't mean to pour the ingredients down the drain; that would be pointless. I meant to mix them in the sink with the drain closed.

But it wouldn't have to be done that way.

I don't know if this specifically is what they had in mind, but several news reports have indicated that at least one of the liquids being looked for is peroxide. A different possibility would be to use a mixture of peroxide and something flammable and to light it and let it burn really fierce.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 5:59 PM on August 11, 2006

One of the first things I thought of when I heard about the liquid ban this morning was babies.

Or insulin. You can't ban people from bringing insulin on airplanes. Well, unless you like being on the wrong side of a multimillion-dollar court judgment.
posted by oaf at 1:02 PM on August 12, 2006

perhaps I was unclear: a few comments removed, the question is pretty straightforward, take complaints or comments about air security to the blue or the grey or email
posted by jessamyn at 10:11 AM on August 13, 2006

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