The Transportation Security Administration's unpopular restrictions on liquids, gels and aerosols in carry-on luggage - better known as the 3-1-1 rule - are pretty much history, if not on paper, then in reality.
Passengers say the TSA has all but stopped screening their baggage for liquids. They say transportation security officers no longer ask them to remove lotions, shampoos and even water bottles from their luggage, and overlook all manner of liquids packed in their carry-ons during screening.
"I was never asked about the liquids in my bag or asked to remove them," says Doris Casamento, a retiree from Naples, who recently flew from Miami to Rome. "My husband had a bottle of water from the hotel he forgot was in his carry-on and it was never confiscated. The water was in a shallow shoulder-bag bulging practically in plain sight."
The TSA initially banned liquids and gels from carry-on bags in 2006 when British authorities reportedly thwarted a plot to blow up planes bound for the United States with liquid explosives. The rule was later revised to allow small quantities of liquids in carry-ons.
The agency in 2008 promised it would ease restrictions within a year by removing size limits on liquids carried onboard. But liquids still would have to be placed in a separate bin, according to the agency. The 3-1-1 rule isn't scheduled to be lifted until the end of this year, when X-ray machines at security checkpoints will have upgraded software proven to detect threat liquids in any configuration.
But a TSA spokeswoman insisted the 3-1-1 rule is still in effect. "The policy continues to be enforced," says Lauren Gaches. "Although it is important to note that we empower our workforce with discretion."
However, extensive interviews with air travelers suggest that the policy is largely unenforced.
Among their observations:
The policy was apparently loosened in 2009. Numerous travelers say the TSA started looking the other way last year. "I leave my liquids in my bag about one-third of the time, mostly because I'm brain dead after teaching two or three full days, and forget," says Gary Zeune, who offers seminars on white-collar crime. "The last time TSA told me to remove the liquids and rescreen the bag was maybe a year ago."
It's happening across the board. With only one or two exceptions, travelers report the lack of a liquid rule at airports across the country. "Twice lately I have gone through security and in a rush forgot to take out my little (plastic bag) of liquids," says Dody Viola, a social worker in Ann Arbor, Mich. "I didn't realize this until I was onboard the plane. I'm not trying to test the system - I just honestly forgot."
No liquids are suspect. Incredibly, no liquids of any kind are apparently scrutinized by the TSA, according to air travelers. "I have a small bottle of hand sanitizer and contact solution in my soft-sided briefcase," says Robert Muncy, a network engineer in Cincinnati. "Never once have they said anything."
If the 3-1-1 rule has indeed been scrapped, it would mean the TSA has taken a lead in removing the restrictions on liquids and gels. The European Union has set an April 29, 2013, deadline for lifting its liquid rules. By that date, the current restrictions on the carriage of liquids in cabin baggage will end, according to a statement issued by Siim Kallas, the EU commission vice president in charge of transport. "For passengers, the aim is also to simplify wherever possible the necessary security controls," he added.
I hear that. I've never understood why the TSA had a liquid-and-gel rule, which I've questioned in previous columns. In response to my claim that liquids were harmless, my friends at the TSA posted a "mythbusting" rebuttal that required its own mythbusting.
Isn't it time for the TSA come clean about liquids? If there's any evidence that my tube of Crest is dangerous, or even just a single documented case in which liquids could have brought down a plane in the United States, then I think we'll all quietly empty our toothpaste, hair gel and contact lens solution into one quart-sized, clear plastic, zip-top bag.
Otherwise, the TSA should make it official and let our liquids fly.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine. You can read more travel tips on his blog, elliott.org, or e-mail him at email@example.com.