By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006
Wendy Shanker was passing through security at the St. Louis airport Friday when the X-ray machine detected a potential weapon inside her carry-on bag. A screener dug into the satchel and found a pair of scissors that Shanker used for knitting. The scissors' blades were shorter than the 4-inch federal limit so the screener plopped them back into the bag.
But he missed something else: Shanker's two-ounce container of Neutrogena hand cream, a substance banned since federal authorities clamped down last month on allowing liquids and gels into airline passenger cabins.
"They focused in on the scissors and didn't seem to see the cream," said Shanker, who didn't realize it was in her bag until she was on her way to Washington Dulles International Airport.
Like Shanker, many people are inadvertently taking banned liquids and gels through security in their pockets and carry-on luggage, according to interviews with several dozen travelers at local airports and with pilots and security officials.
Others, however, say they're simply not going to tolerate the new rules. They admit that they ignore the restrictions, slipping expensive cologne, perfume, lip gloss, lotion and other ointments into their carry-on bags or into their pockets in hopes of sneaking them past security. Some of the items get flagged by screeners, others do not.
Unlike Shanker, the cream and liquid smugglers refused to give their full names. One woman said she slipped her Blistex lip balm into a pocket because her lips dry out on flights; another stashed her perfume in her carry-on because she didn't trust baggage handlers; another kept a small container of body lotion in her purse to apply in the aircraft lavatory.
A business executive said he always traveled with hand sanitizer in his pocket because he worries about germs on planes. He has made about 10 trips since the restrictions went into effect and hasn't been caught.
Since the rules went into effect, most travelers have abided by the law, packing their hand cream, hair gel and toothpaste in their checked luggage or leaving the items at home. The flouters, however, say they hate the hassle of long waits at baggage carousels and worry that their expensive bottles of perfume will be broken or stolen if placed in their checked luggage.
A 33-year-old teacher, who was traveling with her 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter, brought her cosmetics case in her backpack on a trip from Orlando to Dulles Friday morning.
She would give only her first name, Nicole, saying that she worried about getting in trouble. At first, she admitted to a reporter that she was carrying a $75 hydrating gel in her backpack. Then, she revealed lip gloss, toothpaste, a bottle of expensive Chanel perfume and a $300 container of facial cleanser neatly packed in a bulging cosmetic case. Screeners never noticed the items, which she had no intention of checking, she said.
"There is no way I'm putting my Chanel in a checked bag," she said. Then she looked down at her two children: "Who knows what's in their bags?"
The federal government banned most gels and liquids from passenger cabins last month after British authorities said they had foiled a plot to bomb transatlantic flights with liquid explosives. Officials with the Transportation Security Administration said they were confident their security efforts in place at the time would have prevented the plotters from getting through security checkpoints at U.S. airports. But they said they couldn't take any chances and hastily enacted the ban early on Aug. 10.
TSA officials have no way of tracking people who succeed in disobeying the ban, but screeners have caught people trying to sneak items through checkpoints, said Ellen Howe, an agency spokeswoman. Anyone caught could face fines of several hundred dollars, Howe said, although she said it was too difficult to determine whether any fines have been levied.
TSA officials point to a 20 percent increase in checked bags as an indication that most travelers seem to be complying with the rules.
"Travelers must realize this isn't a game," Howe said. "The threat is real and it continues, and we appreciate the public's cooperation. Is it the perfect system? No. But does it make it right to sneak things through security? No, it doesn't."
Security experts said the experiences of travelers interviewed at Reagan National and Dulles airports highlighted what they say are security gaps in the current product bans. A well-trained screener must notice the sometimes-subtle signatures of containers of gels and liquids on X-ray machines. The devices are much better at picking up the shapes of dense and metal objects, such as knives, guns or bomb components, security experts said.
Metal detectors at security checkpoints cannot sense plastic items that may contain liquids or gels.
"There are obviously limitations to this ban," said Clark Kent Ervin, a former inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security.
Ervin supports the restrictions but thinks they are flawed because authorities rely heavily on screeners' interpretations of X-ray images.
"It depends entirely on screeners' alertness and training," he said, "and there are problems with both."
Pilots groups have criticized the measures, saying they notice the security holes all the time. They say authorities should focus more on developing systems to identify potential terrorists, not just their weapons.
Gary Boettcher, a pilot and president of the Coalition for Airline Pilots Association, a trade group that closely tracks security issues, said he constantly sees people drinking from illicit bottles of water or putting on lip gloss when he walks through the passenger cabin. Most of the time, he said, it doesn't bother him.
"They are just doing their routines like they always did," Boettcher said. "An old woman drinking a bottle of water doesn't concern me. . . . The whole screening process is a facade to make the public feel safe, to show that the government is doing something."
Passengers said they didn't feel any safer after reaching their destination and realizing they had inadvertently left a banned item in their carry-on bags.
Libby Cole, 21, who flew into Dulles from Vermont on Friday, said she rushed to catch an early plane and didn't know until she landed that she had two lip glosses in her carry-on bag.
On a past trip, TSA screeners caught one out of two lip glosses, she said.
"I don't think this does anything, because obviously, if this can get through," she said, holding onto one of her lip glosses. "I think it's just kind of a pain."