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."

Florida to Open Its First-Ever Snow Park

Zuberka/iStock via Getty Images
Zuberka/iStock via Getty Images

Millions of tourists flock to Florida each year to ride roller coasters, meet their favorite cartoon characters, and lounge on the beach. The state isn't famous for its winter activities, but that could soon change. As WESH 2 reports, Florida's first-ever snow park is coming to Dade City in 2020.

At Snowcat Ridge, guests will be able to take part in the same snowy fun that's up North. The main attraction of the park will be a 60-foot-tall, 400-foot-long slope packed with snow. A lift will transport visitors to the top of the hill, and from there, they'll use inner tubes to slide back down to ground level. Single, double, and six-person family tubes will be provided to riders.

Guests can also check out the 10,000-square-foot play dome, where they'll use real snow to build snow castles and snow men. The area will even feature a small hill for young visitors who aren't ready for more serious snow-tubing. And because the best part of playing in the snow all day is warming up afterwards, Snowcat Ridge will be home to an Alpine Village, where guests can nibble on snacks and sip cocoa in front of a bonfire.

Dade City is located in Central Florida, an area that hasn't seen snow in nearly 43 years. The arrival of the new park will mark the first time many locals can get a full winter experience close to home.

Snowcat Ridge is expected to open in November 2020.

[h/t WESH 2]

The New York Times's Latest Book on Travel Will Help You Plan the Perfect Weekend Getaway

TASCHEN
TASCHEN

Getting a full sense of a new city while traveling can be tough—especially if you only have a weekend to explore it. But since 2002, The New York Times’s "36 Hours" column has been breaking down destinations all over the world into bite-size pieces, allowing travelers to see the big attractions while still experiencing the city like a local. Now, you can get the best of the column's North American destinations with the fully updated and revised edition of 36 Hours: USA & Canada for $40 at TASCHEN or on Amazon.

Even if you have the original, it’s worth purchasing this updated copy, as this version features 33 new itineraries from Anchorage, Alaska; the Berkshires in Massachusetts; Boulder, Colorado; Miami; Oakland, California; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and many more.

36 Hours: USA & Canda from the New York Times
TASCHEN

The 752-page book also offers more than 5400 hours of travel itineraries, 600 restaurants to dine at, and 450 hotel options. Each city featured includes a brief history, a list of popular destinations, and tips on how to experience it all like a local. For example, the New Orleans guide encourages travelers to start at the French 75 Bar for happy hour and order a Sazerac, a cocktail close to an Old-Fashioned that's a local favorite. Whereas the Miami guide takes you to the Buena Vista Deli, a bistro known for its take on classic French dishes. The travel book also features detailed city maps that pinpoint all the stops, and it's accompanied by nearly 1000 photographs.

Once you've picked your destination, check out some tips on how to craft the perfect itinerary.

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