Limits Stay On Gels in Carry-Ons

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Air travelers should not expect authorities to ease restrictions on gels and liquids in carry-on luggage until sometime next year when new technology may give screeners the ability to more easily spot potential explosives in bags, according to federal security officials who are nearing the one-year anniversary of the rules.

"I don't want to raise expectations," said Kip Hawley, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration. "It would be a fair shot that we could get something done after Labor Day of next year, but we are not going to rush it."

Authorities enacted the bans in August after British police said they uncovered a plot to blow up transatlantic flights using liquid explosives. The TSA later eased the restrictions to allow small amounts of liquid and gel toiletries in carry-on bags, but many travelers still complain about the cumbersome rules that force them to check more bags. Passengers are generally restricted to carrying on a small plastic bag with containers holding 3 ounces or less of liquid and gel products.

Some in Congress and outside experts complain that federal officials are taking too long to make use of new technology that might help counter liquid explosives.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said he has asked the Government Accountability Office to examine the government's development of technology.

"I am not real certain as to the length and breadth they really go to in a timely manner to get us to that point," Thompson said, adding that he also questions the wisdom of the color-coded alert system and whether it is effective. The aviation sector has been on orange, or high, alert for a potential terror attack since the August scares.

"Initially, there was some purpose to it," Thompson said. "Now you hear over the loudspeakers at the airport and see the signs. Beyond that, nothing kicks in that would give you any real concern about the threat level. You see that orange and it just doesn't register."

The TSA's efforts to secure airports have come under more scrutiny in recent weeks as police and intelligence officials uncover more details about the bomb scares in London and the attack on the airport in Glasgow, Scotland, last month. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Hawley's boss, also heightened concerns when he said last week that he had a "gut-feeling" about potential attacks in the United States this summer. Airlines have long been a focus of terrorists.

Hawley and other TSA officials said the key to easing the ban would be the deployment of high-tech X-ray machines that would provide screeners with 3-D images of the contents of luggage. Traditional X-ray machines at checkpoints only provide a two-dimensional view of bags.

While some have pushed the agency to deploy more expensive and sophisticated technology to find liquid explosives, Hawley says the 3-D X-ray machines hold more promise. In tests, the X-ray machines have been able to help determine the type of liquid in a bottle. If they work in the field, Hawley and others said they may begin easing the restrictions.

The machines, which cost from $65,000 to $150,000, are far cheaper than explosive-detection systems used to scan checked luggage for explosives. The machines can cost about $500,000, TSA officials said.

TSA officials hope to begin using the X-ray machines at checkpoints in coming months.

"They are reliable and obviously less expensive and we can get more of them, and I do not believe in buying whatever is new and popping out of the lab is a successful strategy," Hawley said.

Authorities are testing more futuristic options, including X-ray machines that can see through clothing, he said. Authorities are to determine whether smaller versions of the explosive-detection machines can be used at checkpoints.

The TSA also is testing a device that can scan radiation emitted from passengers and determine whether they might have a bomb strapped under their clothing. Screeners tested such a device early this month at Union Station in the District. Officials say the device, known as a passive millimeter-wave machine, would work well in airport concourses and in mass-transit stations.

Officials declined to say when they expect those technologies to emerge in airports and mass-transit stations.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company