Liquid luggage still causing grief

An abbreviated version of this story ran in the Toronto Star on November 12, 2011.


Five years later and travellers are still learning the hard way.

It was 2006 when British police uncovered a plot to smuggle explosives disguised as drinks onto transatlantic flights.  Ever since, tougher security checks and 100-millilitre limits on liquids allowed onto planes have been in place, but every day travellers have to surrender duty-free liquor and perfumes.

Toronto Pearson and Miami-Dade, the largest hub for the Caribbean, see many seizures, though the problem is global. Many victims are used to direct flights, unaware that changing planes can mean a second security screening.

I saw a livid woman lose her rum in Miami recently and learned of another case minutes later. I and another man would have lost out too if not for a friendly airport worker watching for people with duty-free bags.

Canadian and U.S. officials said they can’t provide specific data, but Mathieu Larocque of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) estimated the total in this country is twice 2010’s 355,000 seizures of dangerous objects such as knives.

Sari Koshetz of the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) denied that any confiscations take place. “Passengers are given the opportunity to check their liquids or voluntarily abandon the items,” he said.

Whatever you call it, lost-bottle totals are down a lot since 2007, but still too high according to the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) and the Miami-Dade Aviation Department (MDAD).

In 2007, angry travellers and huge stockpiles at Miami prompted emergency meetings with airlines, cruise operators, security officials and duty-free shops. Educational campaigns followed, but it wasn’t enough, said Lauren Stover, of MDAD’s security and communications department.

“This was an issue we really tried to get a grip on,” Stover said.  “It was very frustrating for us to see our passengers have to abandon perfumes and liquors upon having to re-enter the TSA checkpoints.”

Stover said cruise operators and the U.S. duty-free shop industry vowed to tackle the issue from the purchase end, “but it is a more international than local problem, and that’s where I ran into a dead end.”

She said the TSA has approved tamper-proof bags that might ease matters when widely available. But Larocque said bags have also caused problems for people arriving from Europe, having been issued ones that don’t meet Canadian standards.

As for duty-free sales to out-bound passengers, Scott Armstrong of the GTAA says shops in Toronto should check boarding passes and tickets before completing a sale to ensure customers won’t be disappointed.

Elizabeth Scotton, chief commercial officer for Jamaica’s Montego Bay airport, says departing passengers should be warned of the rules by airlines, airport officials and duty-free staff.

People on that recent St. Maarten-Miami-Toronto journey say they don’t remember being warned. The St. Maarten airport and its duty-free shop didn’t respond to interview requests.

Terrilyn Kunopaski, editor of the TravelHotNews website, was a recent victim in Miami. Upon learning she’d lose her bottles, she offered to check a bag.  “Too late,” she was told, before presenting a gift of vodka and guavaberry-rum liqueur to an American Airlines employee.

Then, as if to salt the wound, at the gate she was told the bag she’d carried onto three flights in the previous six days was too big and would have to be checked after all.

“Still breaks my heart to think about it,” Kunopaski said.



–  If you buy on a ship or duty-free island, wrap bottles in clothes and check in the bag. Hard luggage is recommended.

–  If you’re changing planes and plan to buy at the departure lounge, check a suitcase. You’ll have access to it to stow the bottle after clearing customs. You then check in the bag and go through security.

– Don’t assume in-flight duty-free buys are safe. If a change of planes awaits, you’re the same as anyone purchasing in a departure lounge.

– If departing Canadian airports with U.S. customs, or flying to Canada via the U.S. from Aruba, Bahamas, Bermuda and Ireland, you might not face a second screening. But experts advise you to confirm. As a rule, check a bag if you’re carrying bottles and changing planes.

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