Airport Security: The Plan to Allow Liquids on Planes Again

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Remember those days when you could bring a bottle of water or cup of coffee through airport security and onto your flight?

Unfortunately, those days are long gone for many fliers, after fears that terrorists would try and use explosive liquids to take down a plane.

But some time in the not-so-distance future passengers might be able to bring liquids on planes once again.

Currently, government security screeners have no technology to accurately tell the difference between soda pop and an explosive liquid. However, a team of scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is working on the next generation of scanners that promise to be able to differentiate between a bottle of red wine and white wine.

Homeland Security officials recently demonstrated a prototype of the liquid scanner at Albuquerque's international airport. However, they warn that such devices are still years away for reaching airports.

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We will continue to push for a technological solution that relaxes the liquids policy while ensuring the safety of the traveling public," said Transportation Security Administration spokesman Greg Soule. "Currently, 3-1-1 rules for liquids, gels and aerosols remain in effect."

That means that all liquids, except those that are medically exempted, must be in 3-ounce or smaller containers, in a one quart zip-top bag, one bag per traveler. (Click here for more information about the 3-1-1 rule.)

Rafi Ron, a former Tel Aviv airport security chief and now CEO of New Age Security Solutions, said that the threat of liquid explosives has been around for quite a while.

"It is a very serious threat," Rafi said.

TSA Liquids Rule

Because the technology currently can't detect explosive liquids, officials essentially had to ban all liquids.

"By reducing the quantity, you reduce the risk. But the solution is not a perfect solution, as we know," he said.

Rafi said news of the new scanners is encouraging but that "there are still a lot of issues that need to be resolved."

"It's a little bit too early to be too happy about it," he added. "It may take another couple of years for that technology to become operational."

Los Alamos is working with funding from Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate to adapt medical MRI technology for use to identify liquids and gels inside sealed containers. It is envisioned that this technology may one day assist TSA or other agencies needing to detect dangerous liquid materials carried through a checkpoint.

The original versions of the device, called MagViz technology, were tested in 2008 but were too large and slow -- about 90 seconds per scan -- for practical use. The devices did show promise in its ability to identify the differences between liquid substances in sealed containers.

A smaller version was developed that takes about 15 seconds to scan a bottle. But that required significant cooling, which would add to the operation cost and the amount of space needed.

The TSA operates 730 checkpoints with a total of 2,135 screening lanes at 450 airports across the country. Any new device would have to fit into the already-cramped spaces.

"Though this technology is years from deployment, the Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate is always looking for new and innovative ways to improve security, while also protecting the privacy of citizens and limiting delays in the screening process," department spokesman Chris Ortman told ABC News.

Allowing Liquids Through Airport Security

A new version, only a month old, has solved the cooling issue and can operate at room temperature. It is the size of a small, portable refrigerator.

However, the Department of Homeland Security still considers 15 seconds too long for practical purposes and Los Alamos scientists are trying to fix that problem. The department estimates that any practical application may be at least three years away.

Government officials aren't willing even to guess how much the machines might cost, let alone who would mass produce them.