Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Does The TSA's 3 oz. Liquid Rule Still Hold Water?

I recently returned from a trip to Ireland, which I find to be one of the easiest European countries to travel to. You can fly there non-stop from Philly and the New York airports in as little as six hours, and because Ireland is a very popular American tourist destination, you can sail through customs without hassle.

Flying home from Ireland couldn’t be any easier either. The major airports in Dublin and Shannon have U.S. Customs kiosks right there in the airport; U.S. officials stamp your passport and essentially welcome you back to the U.S. before you’ve even boarded your home-bound flight, eliminating the need for your travel-weary butt to wait in a long customs queue on the other side.

Because of the ease with which I’ve traveled to Ireland in the past, I didn’t even worry when my father (who traveled with us this time) bought two large bottles of Irish whiskey at the Shannon Airport last minute before boarding our flight. As predicted, airline officials waved him and his Paddy onto the plane with no problem.

Talk about a system that works and is user-friendly. (Now how come the rest of the country can’t get its arse in gear?)

So when I recently read about a woman whose husband had an issue returning home from Rome with a few bottles of wine, it got me thinking a little more closely about traveling with liquids. I’ve flown enough to know by heart the TSA’s 3 oz. rule; I can recite it as easily as the Star-Spangled Banner. But I’m a light packer and try to avoid bringing liquids home with me, let alone booze, so I’ve never found myself in a similar situation. Plus, my father had had no problem with his whiskey. So I was curious: what had gone wrong with this poor sap and his wine?

The husband in the story seemed to do everything right. He’d bought the wine at a duty-free shop after clearing security at the Rome airport; the bottles were sealed in tamper-free, see-through plastic bags; and he carried them on the plane, as Roman officials instructed him to do. His layover in London’s Heathrow Airport passed without incident. But the husband had another layover to contend with, a domestic one in Dallas-Fort Worth. And this is where he had trouble.

TSA agents at Dallas-Fort Worth told the husband he’d have to check the bottles of wine for his final flight home to Santa Monica, California.

Seriously? So he’d flown almost six thousand miles with bottles of wine essentially in his lap, but for the short 1500 mile flight from Dallas to Santa Monica, he’d have to check them? Yes, and all because of the TSA’s 3 oz. rule, which says you absolutely cannot carry any container of liquid larger than 3 oz. onto a plane originating in the U.S., no matter the destination. (As of this writing, baby products and medical supplies are an exception.) That left the poor guy with three options: pitch the bottles of wine, check them, or have one hell of a party at the airport before his final flight home.

The husband chose to check the wine, and to the airline’s credit, they were helpful with his decision.

But still, the TSA’s liquid rule is confusing and maddening. That’s because the rule raises questions that allow for no simple answers,  has rare exceptions that most people can’t utilize, and is fraught with loopholes that make sense only to the TSA’s brand of logic.

For starters, the TSA’s 3-1-1 liquid rule for carry on luggage goes like this: each passenger is allowed one (1) clear plastic zip-top bag, sized one (1) quart, filled with three (3) ounce bottles (or less) of liquid. Sounds simple enough, right?

But what’s your definition of liquid? Hairspray, glass cleaner, contact lens solution? Obviously liquids. But what about toothpaste? Toothpaste is more of a gel, but the TSA considers it a liquid, so into the quart bag it must go. Same with your hair gel, deodorant and fabric stain stick. All considered liquids. And how are you supposed to fit all your “liquids” into one itty-biddy quart bag? Most people can’t. Guess what? More shit for you to stuff into your checked luggage.

(Here’s one “liquid” that you’re banned from carrying on a plane that most people don’t think of: gel shoe inserts. My husband wears these everyday except on days when he’s traveling. Too much of a hassle to travel with, so he goes without.)

Now, if the subject of the story didn’t need to go through security again in Dallas en route to Santa Monica, he would’ve been in the clear; he probably would’ve been allowed to carry those bottles of wine onto his domestic flight. That’s because the 3 oz. rule is a TSA rule, not the airlines’ or airports’ rule. Without a security checkpoint, who’s to stop him? He could tuck those bottles of wine into a carry-on bag and no gate agent, flight attendant, or any other airline or airport rep would even know. But he did have to go through security again upon arriving from Heathrow (as well as Customs), so he was nabbed by agents and told no way, Jose. He’d have to check that wine or throw it away.

And if the bottles of wine were 3 oz. or less per container? Well, that’s perfectly fine, as long as the bottles would’ve fit inside his one-quart bag. He would’ve been able to sail through security because the wine falls within the TSA’s magic 3-1-1 scenario. But if the 3 oz. bottles of wine didn’t fit inside his zip-top quart bag, he’d be back to where he started. He’d have to check the tiny bottles or throw them away; he’d be adhering to one part of the rule, while breaking another, and that’s a no-no. With the TSA, it’s all or nothing.

Confused yet?  I know, I know. See how maddening the rule can be? The TSA claims it’s working on software that will someday make it possible for us to once again carry liquids onto a plane, thus abolishing the 3-1-1 rule that even the organization itself admits it’s tired of justifying. They even want to get to a point where passengers will be able to keep their shoes on. What a happy day that’ll be. But of course that day isn’t here yet, so what’s a weary passenger to do? Whether it’s wine or whiskey, perfume or stain stick, how can you avoid the 3-1-1 madness?

First off, try like hell to get a non-stop flight. That’s tough to do if you’re flying to/from some far-flung or hard-to-reach area, or if you live in the middle of nowhere. But if you live within a few hours’ drive of a larger airport, like Dulles, Philadelphia, O’Hare, Newark, JFK or LAX, it’s decidedly easier, because those large airports have tons of non-stop, round-trip flights all over the world. (My husband and I flew non-stop from Newark to Beijing in 2009; it was a chaotic three-hour drive to New Jersey and then a grueling 14-hour flight, but it was worth not having to layover or change planes.)  Suck it up and drive to/from a larger airport, staying overnight if need be, to reap the benefits of a non-stop flight. You won’t have to worry about missing a connection, for one thing. But more on topic, you’ll be able to bring home larger containers of liquid without worry (if you’re flying home from an international destination, that is.)

If a non-stop flight isn’t an option (and even if it is), consider buying the liquid toiletries you need once you reach your destination, if possible. On the flip side, on the return flight home, throw out any and all liquids you no longer need before packing your bags. Also, if you absolutely must have that bottle of Paddy Irish whiskey (like my dad did, because it’s not sold in the States) consider having it shipped home. And of course, you could always wait until you get home to buy your booze—or not buy any booze at all.

But what fun would that be?

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