Airport security: what are the liquids rules and have they changed?

Get set: the approach to the security search at Gatwick North Terminal (Simon Calder)
Get set: the approach to the security search at Gatwick North Terminal (Simon Calder)

Airport security rules and practices have long caused confusion and stress among airline passengers. This week the government announced what ministers call the “biggest shake-up of airport security rules in decades”. But what is changing, when will it happen and what do you need to know right now?

Have the rules on liquids changed?

No, but the Department for Transport (DfT) hopes that they will be able to be relaxed from “major airports” from June 2024 onwards.

The transport secretary, Mark Harper, said: “The tiny toiletry has become a staple of airport security checkpoints, but that’s all set to change. I’m streamlining cabin bag rules at airports while enhancing security.

“By 2024, major airports across the UK will have the latest security tech installed, reducing queuing times, improving the passenger experience, and most importantly detecting potential threats.”

What are the liquids rules right now?

“Liquids, aerosols and gels” (or LAGs, for short) must be in containers no larger than 100ml and in a single, transparent, resealable plastic bag that holds no more than a litre and measures approximately 20cm x 20cm.

The Department for Transport (DfT) says: “Contents must fit comfortably inside the bag so it can be sealed. The bag must not be knotted or tied at the top. You are limited to one plastic bag per person, and must show it at the airport security point.

How is a LAG defined?

Very widely. Obviously water and any other liquid counts, but so too do “lipsticks, mascara, toothpaste, hairspray and shaving foam,” according to the DfT. It specifies the following in particular as being covered by the 100ml limit.:

  • soup, jam, honey and syrups

  • creams, lotions, oils, perfumes, mascara and lip gloss

  • sprays, including shaving foam, hairspray and spray deodorants

  • pastes, including toothpaste

  • gels, including hair and shower gel

  • contact lens solution

  • any other solutions and items of similar consistency

The last of these stipulations has been used to ban yogurt. I have had cheese confiscated at Lyon airport.

Any exemptions to the size limit?

Yes. You can take liquid containers larger than 100ml through security if they are for essential medical purposes or special dietary requirements and you have a note from your doctor; or if they contain baby food or baby milk (though you must be in possession of a baby to qualify).

What about duty free?

The DfT says: “You can also take liquids bought at an airport or on a plane (such as duty free) through security if:

  • the items are sealed inside a security bag when you buy them

  • the receipt for the items is sealed in the security bag and visible

This type of bag is known as a Steb (secure, tamper-evident bag). The DfT adds: “You must not open the security bag until you reach your final destination. Airport staff may need to open the items to screen the liquid at the security point.”

Be warned that rules are variable and changeable in other locations, and you should not rely on being able to take larger quantities of drink in a Steb through checkpoints abroad.

But I thought there was new kit?

The DfT has given the UK’s leading airports a deadline of June 2024 to install the necessary equipment to allow passengers to pass through security more smoothly. CT scanners are able to analyse the contents of bags much more accurately than X-ray checks.

“Not only will it mean greater convenience for travellers – as people will no longer need to spend time taking items out of their bags – but it will also enhance passenger safety, as security staff will have more detailed images of what people are carrying,” the DfT says,

When will I notice any changes in the UK?

The Dft says by June 2024. “Major airports across the UK will have the latest security tech installed, reducing queuing times, improving the passenger experience, and most importantly detecting potential threats.

“Of course, this won’t happen straight away – this is going to take two years to be fully implemented. Until then, passengers must continue following the existing rules and check before travelling.”

Which ‘major airports’ will they be?

The DfT won’t say, but the airports are very likely to include the top 10 UK airports (by 2019 passenger numbers): Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Stansted, Luton, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol and Belfast International.

It is also likely to apply to Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds Bradford, East Midlands, London City, Aberdeen, Belfast City, Southampton, Jersey, Cardiff and Southend (these are the UK airports that handled more than one million passengers annually in 2019).

I went through an airport recently with no need to remove liquids/laptops. It’s all so confusing …

Yes, and the confusion will increase as countries and even individual airports move at different speeds. At present anyone flying from Shannon in the west of Ireland will find “liquids, gels, pastes, lotions and cosmetics in containers of any size” are allowed through security.

But flying back to Shannon, the current rules still apply.

Always assume the worst, and you will not be disappointed.