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 Island Full of Penguins Can Be Yours for the Right Price

iStock.com/SteveAllenPhoto
iStock.com/SteveAllenPhoto

Most people who live on a private island value solitude. But on Pebble Island, a landmass in the Falkland Islands that's currently for sale, you aren't exactly alone. Whoever buys the island from its current owner will have the company of colonies of penguins representing five species.

According to the BBC, John Markham Dean purchased the island for £400 in 1869 (about £35,100 in today's money, or roughly $45,800) and it's been in the same family ever since. Now, Sam Harris, Dean's great-great grandson, is looking to pass it off to a new owner. Pebble Island is currently managed by Harris's mother Claire, though no one in the family has lived there full-time since the 1950s. Speaking on his decision to sell, Harris tells the BBC that it's become too difficult for his parents to maintain the property.

Pebble Island isn't just home to a bustling penguin population. It also comes with sea lions, 42 species of birds in total, and a farm with 125 cattle and 6000 sheep. The island itself is one of the largest in the group, with beaches, lakes, and mountains spread out over 40 square miles.

Located off the coast of southern Argentina, the remote island isn't easy to get to. The farmland also needs to be taken care of, which is why Harris is hoping to sell it to someone with an interest in farming.

If those condition aren't deal-breakers, you can still find Pebble Island on the market. The property has proven difficult to value because it's remained in the same family for so long, so Harris says he's open to offers.

[h/t BBC]

15 Uplifting Facts About the Wright Brothers

Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Before they built the world’s first powered, heavier-than-air, and controllable aircraft, Wilbur and Orville Wright were two ordinary brothers from the Midwest who possessed nothing more than natural talent, ambition, and imagination. In honor of Wright Brothers Day, here are 15 uplifting facts about the siblings who made human flight possible.

1. A TOY PIQUED THEIR PASSION.

From an early age, Wilbur and Orville Wright were fascinated by flight. They attribute their interest in aviation to a small helicopter toy their father brought back from his travels in France. Fashioned from a stick, two propellers, and rubber bands, the toy was crudely made. Nevertheless, it galvanized their quest to someday make their very own flying machine.

2. THEIR GENIUS WAS GENETIC.

While they were inspired by their father’s toy, the Wright brothers inherited their mechanical savvy from their mother, Susan Koerner Wright. She could reportedly make anything, be it a sled or another toy, by hand.

3. THEY WERE PROUD MIDWESTERNERS.

The Wright brothers spent their formative years in Dayton, Ohio. Later in life, Wilbur said his advice for those seeking success would be to “pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”

4. THEY NEVER GRADUATED HIGH SCHOOL.

While the Wright brothers were undoubtedly bright, neither of them ever earned his high school diploma. Wilbur became reclusive after suffering a bad hockey injury, and Orville dropped out of school.

5. THEY ONCE PUBLISHED A NEWSPAPER.

Before they were inventors, the Wright brothers were newspaper publishers. When he was 15 years old, Orville launched his own print shop from behind his house and he and Wilber began publishing The West Side News, a small-town neighborhood paper. It eventually became profitable, and Orville moved the fledgling publication to a rented space downtown. In due time, Orville and Wilbur ceased producing The West Side News—which they’d renamed The Evening Item—to focus on other projects.

6. THEY MADE A FORAY INTO THE BICYCLE BUSINESS.

One of these projects was a bike store called the Wright Cycle Company, where Wilbur and Orville fixed clients’ bicycles and sold their own designs. The fledgling business grew into a profitable enterprise, which eventually helped the Wright brothers fund their flight designs.

7. THEY WERE AUTODIDACTS.

The Wright brothers’ lifelong interest in flight peaked after they witnessed a successive series of aeronautical milestones: the gliding flights of German aviator Otto Lilienthal, the flying of an unmanned steam-powered fixed-wing model aircraft by Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley, and the glider test flights of Chicago engineer Octave Chanute. By 1899, Wilbur sat down and wrote to the Smithsonian, asking them to send him literature on aeronatics. He was convinced, he wrote, “that human flight is possible and practical.” Once he received the books, he and Orville began studying the science of flight.

8. THEY CHOSE TO FLY IN KITTY HAWK BECAUSE IT PROVIDED WIND, SOFT SAND, AND PRIVACY.

The Wright brothers began building prototypes and eventually traveled to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1902 to test a full-size, two-winged glider with a moveable rudder. They chose this location thanks in part to their correspondence with Octave Chanute, who advised them in a letter to select a windy place with soft grounds. It was also private, which allowed them to launch their aircrafts with little public interference.

9. THEY ACHIEVED FOUR SUCCESSFUL FLIGHTS WITH THEIR FIRST AIRPLANE DESIGN.

The Wright brothers started testing various wing designs and spent the next few years perfecting their evolving vision for a heavier-than-air flying machine. In the winter of 1903, they returned to Kitty Hawk with their final model, the 1903 Wright Flyer. On December 17, they finally achieved a milestone: four brief flights, one of which lasted for 59 seconds and reached 852 feet.

10. THE 1903 WRIGHT FLYER NEVER TOOK TO THE SKIES AGAIN…

Before the brothers could embark on their final flight, a heavy wind caused the plane to flip several times. Because of the resulting damage, it never flew again. It eventually found a permanent home in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space Museum—even though Orville originally refused to donate it to the institution because it claimed that Smithsonian Secretary Samuel P. Langley’s own aircraft experiment was the first machine capable of sustained free flight.

11. …BUT A PIECE OF IT DID GO TO THE MOON.

An astronaut paid homage to the Wright brothers by carrying both a swatch of fabric from the 1903 Flyer’s left wing and a piece of its wooden propeller inside his spacesuit.

12. THE PRESS INITIALLY IGNORED THE KITTY HAWK FLIGHTS.

Despite their monumental achievement, the Dayton Journal didn’t think the Wright brothers’ short flights were important enough to cover. The Virginia Pilot ended up catching wind of the story, however, and they printed an error-ridden account that was picked up by several other papers. Eventually, the Dayton Journal wrote up an official—and accurate—story.

13. THE BROTHERS SHARED A CLOSE BOND...

Although the Wright brothers weren’t twins, they certainly lived like they were. They worked side by side six days a week, and shared the same residence, meals, and bank account. They also enjoyed mutual interests, like music and cooking. Neither brother ever married, either. Orville said it was Wilbur’s job, as the older sibling, to get hitched first. Meanwhile, Wilbur said he “had no time for a wife.” In any case, the two became successful businessmen, scoring aviation contracts both domestically and abroad.

14. …BUT WERE OPPOSITES IN MANY WAYS.

Although they were much alike, each Wright brother was his own person. As the older brother, Wilbur was more serious and taciturn. He possessed a phenomenal memory, and was generally consumed by his thoughts. Meanwhile, Orville was positive, upbeat, and talkative, although very bashful in public. While Wilbur spearheaded the brothers’ business endeavors, they wouldn’t have been possible without Orville’s mechanical—and entrepreneurial—savvy.

15. OHIO AND NORTH CAROLINA FIGHT OVER THEIR LEGACY.

Since the Wright brothers split their experiments between Ohio and North Carolina, both states claim their accomplishments as their own. Ohio calls itself the "Birthplace of Aviation,” although the nickname also stems from the fact that two famed astronauts hail from there as well. Meanwhile, North Carolina’s license plates are emblazoned with the words “First In Flight.”

This article originally ran in 2015.

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