This is a post that I meant to write just after I last flew with Ryanair from Nantes to East Midlands. It is, perhaps surprisingly, not a rant about Ryanair. It is instead a rant about the inconsistency of airport security checks, and in particular their approach to liquids and gels (or LAGs, as some bored, overpaid acronym-inventing bureaucrat decided they should be nicknamed).
I travelled back from France to the UK a couple of times in February, once to visit a Thai friend who had been staying in Leeds for six months, and once to celebrate my sister’s birthday in London with my family. These trips necessitated three flights between them, while I took the remaining fourth leg (on the way to London for the birthday visit) by TGV and Eurostar.
Packing for the first trip, where I flew from Nantes to East Midlands and then continued by train to Leeds, I questioned in my mind whether the rules on carrying liquids in hand luggage were still in force. It had been almost three months since I had last flown, back in November, and I wondered whether in that time they hadn’t been in some way altered, either to make them stricter or to loosen them up a bit. These rules seem to change so often, and the limited information available on the internet is almost always out of date, so I left for the airport not really any the wiser about the current situation. But I had erred on the side of caution and packed only the bare essentials, avoiding anything over 100ml that I might be forced to throw away before I made it to x-ray.
So I was clearly surprised with the response at Nantes Atlantique airport, when I asked the security official whether there were any clear plastic bags available for liquids to be screened in; I didn’t have my own. His reply was simply to brush off any need for a plastic bag, telling me in a friendly tone that I could just leave the liquids in my hand luggage. This clearly flew in the face of what had previously been – and what I know now full well were, and indeed are, still – the rules. I continued through security and onto my flight, a little bit peeved that I could have brought that 175ml pot of hair putty with me after all, but otherwise pleased that the restrictions appeared to have been lifted ever so slightly. I am the sort of person who is more than happy for any security restrictions whatsoever if they mean that I get there safely, but even so it is nice to be able to make travelling that little bit easier where you can.
In fact, though, there had been no change to the restrictions at all. This much I discovered not when I flew back from Newcastle to Paris with EasyJet a couple of days later (since I had taken nothing over 100ml with me, I had nothing over 100ml to bring back – though I did put my liquids in a plastic bag, which are cheekily on sale at Newcastle airport for a £1 donation to the NSPCC), but rather the following week when, after my weekend in London, I again returned on an EasyJet flight from Newcastle to Paris (but this time brought my own clear cosmetics case to avoid again buying the world’s most expensive disposable plastic bag!) Having come to London by train, where there are clearly no liquids restrictions at all, I had taken a couple of items over 100ml with me; notably, a new pot of that nice hair putty that I had bought and opened just a couple of days beforehand. Going through security at Newcastle, the still-in-action liquids restrictions were made quite clear, and I had to throw away everything over 100ml. I also had a pair of scissors confiscated which, because of having come by train straight from work on the Friday night, I had forgotten were even in my pencil case at the bottom of my incredibly tightly packed bag.
So why, then, had I been given the opportunity to take liquids over 100ml through security in Nantes, but not in Newcastle? Quite simply, inconsistency. Inconsistency proven again today by the insistence at Nantes that I check in my small suitcase, because the jams and cheeses in my case were prohibited in line with the rules on ‘liquids’ and ‘gels’.
In much the same way, back in 2009, when the liquids rules were also in place, I was able to get a 500ml bottle of Coke through security in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and on the flight to Bangkok – I only realised it was still in my bag, where I had put it half-finished during the taxi ride to the airport in Chiang Mai, when we were in another taxi on the way to our hotel at the other end. But that was a domestic flight, presumably not required to adhere to the same rules that are obligatory for international flights, and rightly or wrongly I expect something like this to occur a little more in Thailand anyway. I certainly don’t expect flouting of the rules in a fair-sized regional airport in a developed, western European country.
The important point here is that, if you are going to have rules like these, then you have to stick to them. If you don’t, then there is no point whatsoever in their existence in the first place. If terrorists are out there looking for ways to blow up a plane using whatever they can sneak through in a plastic bottle, then they are going to be looking for every crack in the system, and they will jump at the chance to exploit those cracks to their advantage. These are determined people – tight security at one airport won’t put them off looking for another where they can take through what they like. Much like the commercial interests that get in the way of stricter security on not just planes but other means of public transport too – it’ll cost too much, it’ll slow things down so we won’t be able to handle as many passengers, you know the things I mean – anything but the tightest sticking to the rules as they are laid down will always prevent us from having anything close to totally safe skies. And that’s aside from leaving passengers utterly bemused at patchy, changing-by-the-day enforcement of already complicated rules about what can and can’t make it into the suitcase you are taking into the cabin with you.
A nervous flyer, when I am in the air I sometimes whisper to myself, a secretly transmitted message to the pilot, ‘take your time, I don’t get care if we get in late, just get me there safely’. The same principle applies to air travel security – by all means inconvenience me if it’s going to keep me safe, but for crying out loud do it properly or you might as well not bother at all.