TSA Works to Clear up Carry-On Confusion

The TSA allows small bottles and tubes of liquids to be carried aboard airplanes only if they are enclosed in a quart-size, zip-top plastic bag.


An airport security screener sat at a Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport checkpoint beside a plastic tub filled with small cans of shaving cream and tiny tubes of toothpaste.

Were they contraband items that ran afoul of safety rules?

"No, people didn't have quart-size plastic bags," the Transportation Security Administration official said.

Where's Seinfeld when you need him?

In a quintessential bureaucratic bedevilment, the TSA allows small bottles and tubes of liquids to be carried aboard airplanes only if they are enclosed in a quart-size, zip-top plastic bag. No gallon bags. No fold-over sandwich bags. Even if you have only one bottle on you, it must be carried in a quart-size, zip-top plastic bag. Screeners confiscate any nonconforming items or send travelers to ticket counters to check luggage.

That's just one of the frustrations travelers have found as TSA began implementing new rules on liquids last month and, in the eyes of some travelers, seemingly prohibited common sense.

TSA says the rules are the result of specific core security issues three-ounce bottles make it extremely difficult to handle and mix liquid explosives, and the one quart-size bag limits the total volume of liquids anyone can bring aboard a plane without too much slowdown at security lanes.

But the agency is reviewing how it has communicated rules to the public and to its own screeners, because of confusion on both sides of the X-ray machine. And now, almost six weeks into the new rules, the agency is now in a position to "give our screeners some discretion," said TSA chief Kip Hawley.

To travelers, some of the regulations are bewildering. You can buy a filled water bottle at an airport shop inside security, for example, but you can't carry your own empty water bottle through security and fill it at a water fountain inside security.

Hawley says there's a classified security reason for that related to the characteristics of liquid explosives. In addition, X-ray machines can detect containers, just not what's inside. So getting all containers out of carry-on bags speeds up security screening.

"As stupid as we may look, we didn't miss that one," Hawley said.

The previous total ban on liquids, imposed Aug. 10 after police in London uncovered a plot to blow up transatlantic passenger jets with liquid explosives, had upset travel significantly, hurting airlines as more customers opted to drive rather than fly for short trips. The volume of checked baggage jumped substantially, and trips took longer as hurried fliers waited at luggage carousels.

The Sept. 26 relaxation helped greatly, travelers say. Still, TSA has enforced some rules so strictly that actions have bordered on silliness, they claim, and have undermined sagging confidence in the efficacy of airport security.

Water bottles and shampoo containers aren't the only items scrutinized in today's environment.

Ann Hanson, a frequent flier from Ann Arbor, Mich., carries asthma inhalers with expensive medicines, and on two recent trips, screeners dropped the inhalers, which Hanson must put in her mouth when she uses them.

One screener "popped off that I shouldn't worry, the floor was clean enough to eat from," she said.

Either frustrated or confused by the new rules, or unable to squeeze all they need into a quart-size bag, passengers continue to check baggage at elevated rates, airlines say. And TSA is encouraging that for passengers who don't want to mess with quart zip-top bags.

American Airlines says that before the liquids ban, 1.1 bags were checked for every passenger. When the total liquids ban went into effect in August, the rate jumped to 1.3 bags per passenger. Now it's down to 1.2 bags per passenger. Frontier Airlines says baggage volume is about 33 percent higher than last year.

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