The Real Reason You Can't Bring Water Bottles Through Airport Security

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Travelers already tired and weary from long spells sitting on planes and standing in gate lines can still muster up enough energy to grumble about restrictive airport security measures. Shoes and belts have to come off. Laptops are slid out from their cases. Unopened bottles of water are tossed in waste bins.

For a mode of transportation that can cause dehydration, not allowing water bottles through security is particularly grating. The directive was put in place by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2006. TSA agents and passengers are expected to follow the “3-1-1” rule for liquids. Those boarding planes can carry 3.4 ounces of liquid per container in a 1-quart bag, with one bag per passenger. While the rule has lent itself to criticism and ridicule, intelligence agencies believe they had—and continue to have—a very good reason for instituting it.

In the new Netflix series Terrorism Close Calls, former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials go on record with details of a number of potentially catastrophic attempts to target civilians that were thwarted by law enforcement. Among those individuals contributing to the show is Steve Hersem, the former deputy director of the CIA’s Community HUMINT (Human Intelligence) Division. Hersem tells Mental Floss that the liquids ban has roots in two separate terrorist plots.

“The banning of a certain quantity of liquids from airline flights in 2006 was the direct result of the intelligence uncovered during Operation Overt,” Hersem says. Operation Overt was the term used to describe a collaborative effort to foil the plot of Abdulla Ahmed Ali, a British citizen who had known affiliations with radical Islamists and terrorists he connected with during frequent trips to Pakistan.

"Ali’s bags were secretly searched when he returned to the UK and a powdered orange soft drink along with a large number of batteries were found in his suitcase," Hersem says. "Based on his associations in Pakistan and the items in his luggage, a layered surveillance program was instituted by MI5, with assistance from the London Metropolitan Police. The surveillance, which included secret cameras and listening devices in Ali’s apartment, resulted in the discovery of a bomb-making laboratory and the fleshing out of a number of co-conspirators."

At one point during their surveillance, investigators witnessed Ali drilling a hole in a soft drink bottle so that it could be filled with an explosive liquid while still appearing to be unopened. If their plan had gone through, Hersem says that the result could have been an attack on seven planes flying out of London and heading for North America using, among other things, a hydrogen peroxide-based-liquid explosive. (Ali and several of his associates were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in 2009.)

Water bottles sit in a garbage bin at an airport
Tim Boyle, Getty Images

But that wasn’t the only justification law enforcement used for the liquids ban. "Al Qaeda had been fixated on targeting aviation as early as 1994 when Ramzi Yousef, the nephew of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attack, tested liquid explosives on an aircraft during the Bojinka Plot," Hersem says. "The Bojinka Plot targeted, in part, Philippine Airlines Flight 434 from Manila to Tokyo, which resulted in the death of a passenger and a large hole being created in the aircraft."

The subsequent liquids ban on flights may have stemmed directly from Operation Overt, but there was also a decade of intelligence to substantiate Al Qaeda’s ambitions—a threat that doesn’t seem to be letting up. "The ban is ongoing because intelligence continues to inform the United States Intelligence Community and other allied intelligence services that Al Qaeda, its affiliates, and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, continues to target aviation," Hersem says.

But why allow a little over 3 ounces? According to the TSA, limiting containers to what can fit inside a quart-size bag prevents what former TSA administrator Kip Hawley once called a “critical diameter” to blow anything up. The size of the container precludes enough of a potentially explosive liquid from being carried on board.

If you really want to get that bottled water past the security checkpoint, there is a workaround: Just freeze it. TSA allows for frozen liquids so long as they’re completely solid. (If it’s mushy or half-melted, you'll be asked to toss it.) Alternately, you can also just bring a completely empty bottle through and fill it up once you're done with the screening, which is the more environmentally conscious thing to do.

Convenient? Not really. But Hersem maintains it's necessary. "As long as there [are] ideologically driven terrorists who are interested in targeting civilian aviation, these types of bans have to be in place and are beneficial in the aggregate."

This Convenient, Comfortable Travel Pillow Doesn’t Wrap Around Your Neck

Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images
Manuel-F-O/iStock via Getty Images

If an angry bit of airplane turbulence has recently whammed your forehead into the window, you probably have the bruises to prove that sleeping on the go can be a dangerous game. Though neck pillows can offer some security, not everyone’s a fan—some people can’t sleep totally upright, some don’t think it provides enough support, and others simply don’t like the feeling of a plush toilet seat curled around their necks.

For those people, there’s the Ostrich Pillow Mini, a tiny, oblong pillow into which you slip your hand, forearm, or elbow, depending on what’s most comfortable for you. It will stay in place and protect your head from airplane turbulence in a way that no balled-up, threadbare hoodie ever could, but it’s not just for those lucky winners (or purchasers) of window seats. You can use the pillow wherever you might be inclined to rest your head on top of your arms, including plane or train trays, piles of library books, and office desks. One Amazon customer even used the pillows as elbow pads to protect himself from unforgivingly hard arm rests.

Ostrich pillow mini
Amazon

Since the Ostrich Pillow Mini essentially works as an extension of your arm, you don’t have to stay stone-still while you sleep. As Travel + Leisure’s Claudia Fisher puts it, “Sometimes, I even wake up from a nap to discover I’ve shifted in my sleep but brought my little arm pillow with me to support my head in its new spot.”

In addition to its main opening, the pillow has two other holes. One is a small, finger-sized opening through which you slide your thumb if you’re keeping the pillow on your hand. The other is a larger hole at the other end, through which you slide your hand if you want the pillow to stay on your forearm or elbow.

Ostrich pillow mini
Amazon

It’s compact enough that you can easily fit it into your carry-on bag, backpack, or briefcase, and understated enough that you can power nap in public without drawing attention to yourself. The outer layer is light gray, and the inner layer comes in Midnight Grey, Blue Reef, or Sleepy Blue. You can order it for $35 from Amazon.

Check out some other ways to make flying more comfortable here.

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How to Book Your Dream Vacation Now and Pay Later

grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

Many websites make booking travel fast, cheap, and easy—but when it comes time to hit purchase, they still expect you to pay for your trip upfront. Outside of sweepstakes and dream jobs, paying for your ideal vacation is unavoidable, but a new feature from CheapAir.com makes it a little less painful. As Yahoo! reports, the online travel agency now lets customers book all the parts of their trip—including hotels and airfare—and pay for them in installments.

If you're fantasizing about a vacation you can't afford to take at this point in your life, you can take care of the logistics now and worry about paying for everything later. The new CheapAir.com feature works differently from most online booking services: Instead of paying for the components as you go, you set up a budget with the website at the start of the process. Once your budget is confirmed, you're given 21 days to plan your trip through the site. The cost of everything you book is subtracted from your budget, and CheapAir.com shows you what funds you have left so you don't pay more than you set out to spend.

After scheduling and booking your travel, CheapAir.com gives you up to a year to pay for your trip. You can break up the total cost of your bill into three, six, or 12 monthly installments at a 10 to 30 percent annual percentage rate. And before signing up for anything through the service, you must go through a quick credit approval process to qualify.

CheapAir.com is one of the latest travel websites that lets users book their trips now and pay for them later. Expedia also has a bill installment option if you're booking rooms and tickets that cost $200 or more, and some airlines, like American Airlines and British Airways, allow you to set up a payment plan through them directly.

[h/t Yahoo!]

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