The air travel world has been living with the “3-1-1 liquids rule” (or its country-specific equivalent) for a long time now. In the United States, the TSA says you’re only been allowed to bring a quart-sized bag of liquids, aerosols, gels, creams and pastes through the checkpoint. They are limited to 3.4 ounces (100 milliliters) or less per item (well, with these 10+ exceptions)
The rule came about in August, 2006. At that time, British authorities reportedly stopped a plot to blow up planes headed for the United States with liquid explosives. Initially, we weren’t allowed to carry ANY liquids or gels in our carry-on bags but that was eventually revised to allow small amounts under 100mls/3.4 ounces.
It’s been like that at just about every commercial airport around the world, ever since.
(By the way, this quick explanation of how the TSA managed to start the liquid ban, OVERNIGHT, is pretty fascinating. Unfortunately, it was part of the “legacy/obituary” for the guy who had been the TSA Administrator at the time, Kip Hawley. Anyway, go to the 5th paragraph down.)
In 2008, Hawley, on the agency’s blog, in a piece called “path forward on liquids,” suggested that 3-1-1 restrictions could be loosened as early as sometime in 2009, and they would remove the size limits on liquids in carry-ons. By May 2010, Christopher Elliott said on NBC News that it still hadn’t happened. At the time, Elliott said, “The 3-1-1 rule isn’t scheduled to be lifted until the end of this year , when X-Ray machines at security checkpoints will have upgraded software proven to detect threat liquids in any configuration.”
We all know how that went.
Meanwhile, fast forward to today, and Hawley’s blog post is gone. Regardless, it’s been well over a decade since it was originally written, and 3-1-1 continues.
The thing is, since that post was written, technology around the world has improved dramatically. Thanks to the improvement of computed tomography (CT) technology, airport security agents with CT scanners can have a much clearer view of what’s in your carry-on bag. In fact, in March, 2022, the first airport in the world ended its version of the 3-1-1 rule. Liquids (and electronics) at that airport can now remain in carry-on bags at the security checkpoint, and there are no restrictions on liquid volume.
In July, 2022, another airport announced the use of CT scanners, meaning the end of passengers carrying small bottles of liquids in their carry-on.
Amsterdam Schiphol has actually been using the technology for even longer – since 2020 – but the airport advises that passengers still use 100-milliliter containers, to avoid problems when flying to other jurisdictions.
So where does that leave us here in the good ol’ U.S. of A.?
The TSA has also invested in CT technology over the past few years and is slowly installing the new scanners at our 5,000 public-use airports. As of September 2022, there were more than 500 CT scanners deployed at 180 airports in the United States. Unfortunately, that’s just 3.6% of our commercial airports. But we’re a big country, and it’s a start.
Here’s what the TSA said in a press release when Harrisburg International Airport got one of these state-of-the-art CT scanners (boldtype is mine, for emphasis):
This equipment is similar to what is used to scan checked baggage for explosive devices, and has been “sized” to fit at checkpoints to create such a clear image of a bag’s contents that the system can automatically detect explosives, including liquids, by shooting hundreds of images with an X-ray camera spinning around the conveyor belt to provide TSA officers with the three-dimensional views of the contents of a carry-on bag.
The new technology sounds really cool. But it did get me wondering…if more and more checkpoints are getting CT scanners, why hasn’t the 3-1-1 rule changed for those airports that have them? Are we going to have to wait until every single airport in the U.S. has the new scanners? Or a certain percentage of them? Or until it’s available all around the world? Or…when?
So I did what any other citizen would do…I asked the TSA.
The MyTSA app has been around since 2011. The app honestly wasn’t worth much for a while, but it got a major update in 2019 that made it genuinely useful. The app has a link to AskTSA’s Twitter presence. Of course, you’re always welcome to go directly to Twitter and ask them there, too – TSA representatives are available to answer questions from 8am to 6pm ET.
Plenty of people just put their questions out there in a public tweet. However, DMs (Direct Messages) tend to work best for me. Here’s what I asked.
Hello! I’ve read that TSA currently has over 500 CT scanners deployed at 180 airports in the U.S. Why can’t we bring more than 3-1-1 liquids through those scanners/airports yet, if the technology is there and functional?
I got my answer 18 minutes later:
Liquid explosives still pose a threat. Allowing passengers to carry liquids, gels and aerosols in smaller containers lessens the risk.
I didn’t like the sound of that. It made it sound like the 3-1-1- liquid rule would go on for, you know, forever. But wasn’t CT technology going to help them know a threatening liquid when they saw it?
So, seeking clarification, I wrote to TSA again:
Thank you for your reply. I understand what you’re saying, but Shannon (Ireland) and Schiphol (Amsterdam) Airports also have CT technology at their security checkpoints and no longer have restrictions on liquid volume. I’m not trying to be pithy, but I’m sure they’re just as concerned about liquid explosives as we are in the U.S. But based on what you’re saying, will 3-1-1 continue, even when all U.S. airports have CT technology?
(Yes, I know I got the names of one of the airports wrong LOL)
Nothing. Not a word.
OK, maybe they were busy. So the next day I wrote to them again:
They never replied.
So your guess is as good as mine. But at this point, it sounds as if the 3-1-1 rule is here to stay, at least in the foreseeable future, simply because, “liquid explosives still pose a threat. Allowing passengers to carry liquids, gels and aerosols in smaller containers lessens the risk.”
Even though they’ve managed to stop it in some airports in Europe. And even though we can already bring 12 ounces of hand sanitizer, and larger-than-3.4-ounces of medical liquids in our carry-on bags (and the original would-be bombers apparently didn’t try to use THAT much liquid to begin with). And even though the TSA themself said CT scanners could tell if a liquid is a threat or not.
So…I dunno. Even the TSA’s page that details Computed Tomography doesn’t mention anything about changing the size of liquid bottles – just that they won’t have to be removed from your bag.
Now, before anyone goes all, “IT’S ALL SECURITY THEATER!” on me (I know some of you are just chomping at the bit to reply with some version of that. Just remember to read this first to help ensure your comment gets approved), to an extent, I get what they’re doing. The TSA scanners are definitely a deterrent because of what they find – you just have to look at how many loaded guns they’ve found in carry-on bags and on people this year. But there’s also something to be said about if the public at large just THINKS the TSA is going to catch them doing something wrong, they won’t try it. Some people call that “security theater.” But you know what? Whether it’s because we’re actually secure/safe or the TSA just makes some of us feel like we could get caught, it’s worked…we haven’t had an attempted bomb on a plane via liquid explosives since 2006. 😉
But for now, yeah, it sounds as if we’re going to have to live with the 3-1-1 for quite some time.
Feature Image (cropped): TSA
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Japan is another country that doesn’t have a liquids rule. I just flew domestically and asked about my 1/2 full one litre sports bottle at the security scan- it was not a problem:-)
I hadn’t heard about that news. Thanks for the update!
I love Japan’s bottle/can scanner. They just put it in a cradle and 1-2 seconds later it beeps and long as it’s green/safe, you get your drink back.
No need to throw out or chug down that bottle of water you bought before security.
I don’t loathe the TSA like some people but there is a lot not to like:
Your excellent question about liquids that illustrates inertia perfectly.
A strong culture of misogyny and racism.
A lot of ineptitude at catching actual weapons.
Allowing many people with weapons to escape repercussions.
You might think from the above that I advocate dispensing with the TSA but just like so many unpopular government agencies (hello IRS) we need their job done for the public good. I just argue that it could be done better.
Here’s the thing: These CT scanners are very accurate, but their implementation is going to slow down the process considerably. Why? Because the “old school” x-ray machines allow for the conveyor to move “at the speed of the ability of the TSA personnel operating the machine.” An experienced TSA officer can thus keep the bags, and therefore the people, moving at a decent clip. The CT scanners, however, move at the rate of the CT conveyor system itself, which is presently markedly slower than the speed of your typical TSA officer using an x-ray conveyor. I’m IRL friends with a TSA officer in town and spoke with him about this because our small-town regional airport received these CT scanners. It used to be a max 5 minutes to clear TSA regardless of precheck status, it now takes double to triple that despite the same passenger numbers. He explained it as provided above.
If we must accept slower checkpoints and the inevitability of more manual searches as a result of the higher accuracy of the CT machine, the least TSA could do would be to let 3-1-1 go.
I don’t mind the rule about liquids in carry ons, because if I tried to bring larger sizes, it would add extra weight that I’d have to lift. If I need more, I’d rather put it in a checked bag that I don’t have to haul around the airport with me and onto the plane.
But many people try to avoid checking a bag, to keep costs/time time.
I know…. I haven’t been checking bags very much because I usually only have time for weekend or three-day trips, so I can put everything I need in a carry on with travel-size liquids. And I pack as light as possible–one pair of light-weight shoes, light-weight clothing, etc. because I’m not very strong and travel alone without any one to assist me….
I was in Australia in September. On internal flights, no requirement to take liquids out. We could bring full bottles of water in our carry-ons.
I was in Australia in 2008 and it was the same then. We emptied our bottles and took off our shoes; turned out we didn’t need to do either.
So, using your own comments about the number of “guns caught”, maybe it isn’t the effective deterrent you thought? Maybe safety is an illusion and the only reason people stopped trying was more effective places with actual success of their terrible motives. Displacement isn’t the same as deterrence.
In retrospect, I probably should have used 2 terms. It’s an effective deterrent in that it stops many people who are afraid to get caught. However their processes also actively stop those who still think they can get away with [bringing a gun onboard, smuggling cocaine or heroine in a wheelchair or a doll, etc.]
I believe I know the reason why the USA refuses to get rid of that rule.
It is the same reason why movie theaters do not like people bringing their own snacks.
They have kept this rule in place in order to get more money from their passengers and customers. The only way around it is to bring an empty bottle or cup, and fill it up with whatever liquid, you want once you are past security.
I believe also (depending on who you were talking to) The TSA representative, may not have had an answer due to their lack of knowledge of when/if they will ever get rid of that rule, since they may not be fully in charge of TSA and nothing more than customer service.
I don’t think the TSA cares how much money passengers spend at airports – their bosses are the gov’t, not the individual airports. However I do agree the social media gurus of TSA don’t necessarily know everything that’s going on in the higher ups’ brains. That being said, I still think it’ll be a while before the U.S. ends 3-1-1, if they end it at all.
3 1 1 is to protect us. you can still take large liquids and things in your check in bags. (HINT: check in bags that go under the plane are checked the same way, but the officers are trained differently than those on checkpoints. they are trained to look throughly in bags while checkpoint operators (xray or CT) only have a few seconds to look in the bag as lines build up quickly with angry passengers trying to get on flights) so the smaller liquids help get us on planes faster. please be kind to the TSA checkpoint operators as they are working hard to keep us safe and secure. all airports are different as I was told as a measure of security. if all the checkpoints and airports run the same then it would be easier to the the bad guys learn how it operates and get through with things that will hurt us.
Not everyone checks bags, though. And if someone hasn’t checked a bag and want to buy a 12 jar of jelly, a 4 oz bottle of perfume, or a bottle of wine while they’re traveling, they’re currently out of luck. Obviously, the system works well in Dublin and Shannon and I haven’t heard of long delays because of their new CT scanners.
The SHOES, when do we get to keep our SHOES ON? Ridiculous. Just because he paid for Precheck he keeps his shoes on..Discrimination.
If someone has paid for PreCheck, that means they’ve been vetted and the government thinks they’re a low risk. I’m not sure why anyone would think it’s discrimination that another person is willing to pay to be checked out by the federal government to ensure they’re safe and therefore don’t have to go through as much rigamarole?
That rule is a load of bull and only there to help the food court businesses at this point. What is to stop someone, from altering any full sized liquid container, that you can purchase in any of the stores. How is it that those full sized liquid containers are not subject to the same rule?
You can’t buy the chemicals you need to make a bomb at Hudson News and the like. I promise the TSA doesn’t care how much or how little airports sell; they’re 2 different entities. And if the airports cared that much about how many bottles of Coca Cola people buy there, they wouldn’t have installed water bottle stations.
Government bureaucracy takes forever to change. That is the easy answer… Just look at the on-line passport process?