Analysis: A welcome government retreat on scanners

The recent deadline extension on installing 3D-security scanners at airports reduced the risk of summer chaos. Ian Taylor reports

The government extension of its June 1 deadline for airports to install the latest 3D security scanners at airports was a welcome clarification.

Wholesale use of the CT (computer tomography) scanners at airports would remove the 100ml restrictions on liquids in carry-on baggage and the need for passengers to remove liquids and laptops from bags at security.

MoreAbta urges airline passengers to stick to existing rules for liquids and laptops

An end to the restrictions, in place since 2006, would be welcome. But the deadline threatened inconsistent application of the rules through the summer because the scanners will not be universally in place – a point airports have been making to the Department for Transport (DfT) for months.

Inconsistent rules would inevitably mean confused messaging and risk queues and chaos at security if large volumes of passengers turned up with bags full of normal-size toiletries.

The government was resistant to postponing the deadline which transport secretary Mark Harper announced in December 2022 having recently come into the role.

Travel Weekly reported in February that the DfT was resisting pressure to push back the deadline despite most of the UK’s biggest airports seeking extensions or “alleviations” and Jet2 chief executive Steve Heapy warning of “massive disruption and turmoil”.

A senior aviation source told Travel Weekly: “If it had been up to the industry, we wouldn’t have the deadline. [But] the government made great play of this, saying ‘The era of the tiny toiletry is over’. It doesn’t want to row back in an election year.”

The source warned the deadline would be missed regardless “given the scale of the challenge”, explaining: “There are only two manufacturers of the scanners. There is significant construction work required [and] airports have to take out security lanes to install the scanners.”

Travel Weekly noted in February: “Of the biggest airports, only Luton is understood to be ready for June 1. Other major airports will have some scanners in place.”

A second source insisted “these scanners are first rate” but described the process of installing them as “massively complex”, saying: “These scanners are very heavy. Some airports have had to strengthen floors and install new elevators.”

The DfT masked its retreat last week by talking tough, suggesting: “Extensions have been granted on a case-by-case basis for up to a year [and] serious penalties [are] planned for those who fail to meet the new deadlines.”

Harper suggested: “Powers to achieve this under the Aviation Security Act will be explored and taken forward in the coming months.”

But there will be no work on installing the scanners through the summer – the earliest work is likely to recommence is November – and the government is unlikely to be in office to impose fines next year even if it finds time to take the powers to do so.

Industry associations were understandably pleased at the extension, with Airport Operators Association chief executive Karen Dee declaring: “We’re happy the government has agreed to extend timeframes where necessary.

“By adopting this approach, airports can ensure they’re ready to welcome passengers over the upcoming holiday periods.”

The June deadline was not the first to be postponed. In 2011, the DfT confirmed its “intention that restrictions on liquids will be lifted by 2013”.

But most overseas airports still lack the scanners and may not have them for years, so the restrictions will remain on most flights to the UK regardless of what happens here.

Restrictions on liquids, gels and aerosols in carry-on bags were introduced in August 2006 after the discovery of a bomb plot using liquid explosives in cabin luggage on a US-bound flight from London.

An initial ban subsequently gave way to passengers being permitted up to five 100ml-quantities of liquids in a single plastic bag.

Travellers are advised to adhere to the existing rules, understanding that they may be lucky and not need to remove liquids at security on a UK-departing flight if their bags happen to pass through a 3D scanner. But it will be potluck at most UK airports.

MoreAbta urges airline passengers to stick to existing rules for liquids and laptops

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