A low-profile revolution is underway that aims to change how we provide airport security, but most of us don’t realize it.
For nearly 16 years, the requirement to take electronic equipment out of suitcases and put liquids in 100 ml containers has been the guiding principle of air travel. However, many airports around the world already have new technology that will allow this rule to be lifted, and some have already begun to lift this restriction.
In October 2021, Shannon Airport in the west of Ireland quietly announced its new state-of-the-art computed tomography (CT) equipment, a security scanning system installed at a cost of €2.5 million.
With this new technology, liquids and electronics can now stay inside bags with no liquid volume restrictions, and carry-on luggage can pass through the security scanner on new, larger trays.
Shannon, Europe’s westernmost airport, is not the first time a global pioneer. It was at this airport that the first store was opened. duty free in the world in 1947, and in 2009 it became the first airport in the world outside of America to provide the United States with a full range of customs clearance services.
“This is one of the projects the Shannon Group has taken on during a period of severe travel restrictions,” Nandi O’Sullivan, team leader of public affairs, told CNN Travel.
Done during the pandemic, it wasn’t until international travel resumed in March 2022 that the airport’s move began to attract more attention. For its part, Donegal Airport in northwest Ireland has also followed suit, installing new technology and ditching the 100 milliliter rule.
Better security, short queues
How does this new CT technology work, which airports are already using it, and why aren’t there other places easing restrictions?
Kevin Riordan, Head of Checkpoint Solutions at Smiths Detection, the company that supplies security equipment to Shannon and is a global leader in CT imaging technology, explains why.
Much like the CT scans we know from hospitals, airport security scanners are replacing conventional 2D X-ray scanners with much more accurate 3D images.
“You can get a lot of information from a 2D image, but when you have a 3D object in your hands, you get a lot more,” Riordan said. “From a security point of view, they are able to make very precise decisions about the type of materials that are in their suitcase: is it a dangerous or harmless item. This means that when security is higher, decisions will be made better.”
Shannon Airport estimates that time spent checking passenger safety will be reduced by 50% with the new technology, and as expected, Riordan said passenger feedback at airports where the new machines have been tested has been very positive.
The liquid ban was implemented worldwide after a transatlantic terrorist plot was uncovered in August 2006, in which the group planned to detonate liquid explosives aboard several aircraft. It has become a part of everyday life, but many of us remember well the times when the queues for security checks were faster and luggage was easier.
CT scan technology hit the headlines in 2018. The scanners have been tested at major airports including Heathrow in London, JFK in New York and Schiphol in Amsterdam. The following year, Heathrow announced it would invest £50 million (about €58 million) to gradually install the technology at its airports, with a deadline of 2022.
In July 2020, it was announced that London Southend Airport would be the first in the UK to end the practice of forcing passengers to remove liquids and electronics from bags before going through security.
In turn, Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is also using CT scan technology, senior airport spokesman Dennis Muller told CNN. But unlike Southend or Donegal, Schiphol is an important international centre. Its passengers are no longer required to comply with liquid restrictions, but the airport says they continue to use 100ml containers to avoid problems in countries that still have that jurisdiction.
“The Netherlands has developed faster than most,” says Riordan. “The UK has implemented this technology by 2024 and this will remove all restrictions on what can continue to be transported.”
As more countries are able to fully implement this technology at the national level, we will see more airports and regions remove restrictions or make them more flexible. However, changes in the rules will not happen so quickly and everywhere.
“It’s a dynamic picture that we’re still trying to figure out what impact it’s had over the last couple of years,” Riordan said. “Passenger numbers at many airports are recovering faster than expected.” As a result, airports and airlines around the world have suffered severe staffing shortages, leading many to predict a “chaotic summer” in the future.
Smiths Detection is one of the few companies in the field of this type of technology, whose main competitor is the US company Leidos, which received a contract worth 446.2 million euros from TSA to introduce technology for tracking checkpoints in the United States. USA last year.
“It’s an ongoing process for us as suppliers,” Riordan said. Recent staffing constraints “force us to design much more efficient operations. Computed tomography technology is the best on the market, but is there a smarter way to use it for optimization?”
One of the innovations is multiplexing: “A set of bags is passed through the machine and the images are sent to (three or four) different operators instead of just one operator per machine. This is a way to try to make up for this discrepancy in the number of employees and increase the number of passengers.”
The cost of implementing this new technology is not cheap, and smaller airports whose problems are already being felt in the wake of Covid may find these improvements problematic.
Each airport will have its own renewal and innovation planning, taking into account all the constraints and requirements of a 21st century hub airport.
More airports will come under pressure as countries demand renewal, but until then, at the individual airport level, it’s a matter of business.
Efficiency and customer satisfaction are of course paramount, but the reduction in check-in queues also means that passengers are spending more time walking around the airport and therefore spending more money in airport shops and restaurants. “Everything is different in different regions of the world. It will happen at different speeds,” Riordan said.
It’s too early to predict how quickly things will evolve, but with airports like Shannon and Schiphol, we may see progress in the coming years. But with the recovery of the industry, it will probably happen sooner rather than later.
CNN has reached out to Heathrow for comment on the story.