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."

Harry Potter Fans Can Have Dinner at Hogwarts This Christmas

big-ashb via Flickr // CC BY 2.0
big-ashb via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Fans who have ever dreamed of a Hogwarts Christmas now simply need to make their way to London to experience it. Through January 27, 2019, the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London is hosting a festive "Hogwarts in the Snow" event, where visitors can recreate some of the Wizarding World's most memorable moments.

According to the Warner Bros. Studio website:

"The festive transformation will begin in the Great Hall, where the stage will again be decorated as it was for the iconic Yule Ball. As seen in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the celebration of the Triwizard Tournament saw every detail of the Great Hall covered in shimmering silver, dripping icicles and sparkling snow. You will get a taste of this incredible set dress as the top section of the Great Hall will be transformed with snow-covered Christmas trees, icicles, and an orchestra of magical instruments that have been painted by the Prop-Making Department to match the silver of the Yule Ball."

Though it may not be exactly like attending the Yule Ball that was thrown at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with Harry and the gang, the studio's epic holiday party will make it feel pretty close. An orchestra will play as attendees feast on a grand two-course dinner in the Great Hall and drink Butterbeer, and you'll gain exclusive entry to the Studio Tour.

After dinner, dessert and drinks will be served as guests travel through the sets from the Harry Potter film series, including the Gryffindor common room, Diagon Alley and Platform 9 ¾.

Though The Weird Sisters will not be in attendance, we can pretty much guarantee you'll have a better night than Harry, Hermione, and Ron did at the Yule Ball.

New Memory Foam Neck Pillow Takes the Pain Out of Travel

iStock.com/izusek
iStock.com/izusek

Travel can be a pain in the neck—quite literally. Kinks and cramps don’t have to be part of the package, though. Edge Signature, whose lineup of practical travel products includes a digital luggage scale and an anti-theft backpack, has designed a memory foam pillow that adapts to the contours of your head and neck.

The True Adaptive pillow has been given an ergonomic M-shape, with the two bumps in the back providing some extra support for your neck. The problem with many travel pillows is that they don’t hold your neck steady when you start to doze off. “The deeper we fall into unconsciousness or our sleep state, the more relaxed our muscles will be,” Edge Signature writes in its Kickstarter campaign for the True Adaptive pillow. “This makes it practically impossible for us to get a good rest or sleep while sitting upright as our neck muscle will have to keep working to support our neck.”

That’s where the pillow’s high-density memory foam comes in. It will stay in place even as you move around, and an adjustable string in the front makes it fit as loose or as snug as you’d like. There’s even a smartphone pocket on the side, so you won’t have to worry about finding your phone in a dimly lit aircraft cabin.

When you’re done using the pillow, fold it up and place it back into its carrying pouch, which can be clipped onto your suitcase or backpack. After returning from a long trip, you can remove the cover and throw it in the washing machine to get it ready for your next big adventure. The zipper is hidden, though, with the advantage being that you won’t have any plastic bits poking you in the face while you’re trying to nap.

The pillow’s usefulness isn’t limited to travel, either. Wear it at your office desk, or while studying or reading for extended periods of time. Backers who pledge $39 or more before January 9, 2019 will get the True Adaptive pillow and carrying pouch at a 35 percent discount. U.S. shipping is free.

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