Some optimism for you on a Friday afternoon: Researchers at the University of California at Davis seem to have come up with a liquid scanner that can tell explosives from hand creams or beverages. Good news, but it’s not ready for implementation yet, as the video below details.

I particularly enjoy the two beverages that they are testing: A bottle of Chateau Petrus and a bottle of Red Bull. Please don’t mix the two. (Petrus? Really??)

One of the biggest problems with the devices right now: The time it takes to scan things is impractical for airport use. And bringing that scan time from 5 minutes to 5 seconds within one year, as the reporter suggests is possible? Don’t hold your breath. 100ml requirements aren’t going anyway anytime soon.

Watch below.

Categorized in: airport security, liquids

Downgraded: Prospects for carrying on liquids in the European Union
While the European Union’s European Commission is aiming to allow you to carry on liquids again — as we reported back in October — airports and airlines are actually fighting the EC and lobbying to keep the nearly five-year liquid restrictions in carry-on luggage:

In recent months, trade groups representing hundreds of airports and dozens of airlines have quietly stepped up the pressure on the European Commission to abandon its plan for a gradual easing of restrictions. From April 29, the change would allow passengers passing through Europe from a third country to carry liquids, aerosols and gels purchased either at an airport duty-free shop or on board a non-European airline. They are calling instead for the ban to remain in place until 2013, when Brussels has vowed to eliminate all cabin restrictions on such goods.

“The existing technology is not fit for the purpose,” said Olivier Jankovec, the director general of the Airports Council International Europe, a lobbying group based in Brussels that represents more than 400 airports. “We risk paralyzing the big hubs.”
But the intense lobbying has so far failed to sway the commission, which committed two years ago to simplifying the often onerous security screening process. It remains a source of frustration for passengers who are forced to jettison drink containers, toothpaste, skin creams and even jars of marmalade before boarding planes.

Aides to Siim Kallas, the European transportation commissioner, said he remained unconvinced by the industry’s arguments and was satisfied by the performance standards set by European regulators for liquid-explosive detectors. Moreover, they said, the numbers of transfer passengers likely to be affected by this first phase of the plan should be manageable.

Upgraded: AA miles on Facebook
It’s a spin of the wheel, essentially, but you could earn a random number of American AAdvantage miles — between 100 and 1,000,000 — if you “like” the AAdvantage program on their Facebook page. I think these “like” campaigns are kind of lame, but hey, if you’re a Facebooker, have some free miles. Full details here.

Upgraded: Atlanta Braves parking for Delta SkyMiles Medallion members
I guess this is a thinking-outside-the-box perk for upper-tier Delta elite frequent fliers: Medallion-level members get access to a special parking area within the Green Lot for Atlanta Braves games at Turner Field. It’s not free parking — normal rates apply. I’ve never been to a game at Turner Field, but the Green Lot looks like it’s as convenient as it’s going to get.

Upgraded: Taiwanese analysis of American aviation
For those who appreciate the kitschy animations of global news by the Taiwanese animators at Next Media Animation, please enjoy this cartoon analysis of American aviation’s obsession with fees. Note the not-so-subtle digs at the age of U.S. flight attendants (ouch) and the ragging on US Airways in particular, going so far as to use their logo. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the video celebrates the triumphant Asian airline industry, singling out Cathay Pacific. Who knows, maybe Cathay paid for this episode. Watch it below.

Upgraded: Pancakes
Want to hide your junk from the TSA’s nude-o-scopes? Stuff pancakes made of explosives into your underwear. What?!

Upgraded, potentially: Star Alliance in Australia
Somewhat surprisingly, Virgin Blue is rumored to be interested in joining Star Alliance. Such a deal, if real, would likely make a pan-global Virgin alliance moot. So much for that theory. But for Star Alliance fans, a Virgin Blue tie-up would really open up a wide range of Australian destinations.

Upgraded, barely: US Airways lifetime status
US Airways has joined its peers and rolled out a lifetime elite level. One-million miles flown on US Airways flights yields only lowest-tier status, with Star Silver status attached. And it’s not even for life — you have to maintain activity at least every three years to retain the status. Pfft. Other airlines offer a much better deal. (Especially AA, among the US-based airlines, which counts all earned miles, and not just flown miles, when calculating million-miler status.) For a nice rundown of the various airlines’ million-miler options, see the Global Traveller’s breakdown.

Downgraded: Venezuelan humor
Unclear if this is truth or fiction, but a flight attendant was allegedly detained by Venezuelan authorities for announcing the time at the destination as “local Chavez time.” Chavez time? “In December 2007, Venezuela created its own time zone, moving the clock back half an hour on a permanent basis, and according to the U.S. embassy report, ‘the crew member was likely trying to remind passengers of this and to suggest they turn their watches back 30 minutes.’”

iceland express inflight ipad Upgrades and Downgrades: iPads inflight, contraband, biofuels, and security cartoons

Upgraded: iPads as inflight entertainment
Discount airline Iceland Express, which flies primarily within Europe, but also offers limited trans-Atlantic service from Reykjavik to New York and Winnipeg (Winnipeg!), is launching iPads as inflight entertainment. You’ll be able to rent an iPad onboard long-haul flights, for starters, and eventually on shorter flights. The unit will cost £9 or $13 to rent, with about 25 units on board each flight.

Upgraded: Contraband
Most of the news regarding TSA lately has been about junk-touching and radiation’s effects on the body, but what about the contents of the bags themselves? Well, according to a recent poll by British airfare aggregator SkyScanner, “a massive 43% of travellers admitted to having smuggled banned items past security staff; 29% had done so by accident, but 14% confessed to smuggling knowingly.”

Upgraded: Biofuels in the real world
Lufthansa is testing a 50-50 blend of traditional jet fuel and biofuel on Airbus A321 runs on the Hamburg-Frankfurt route, beginning April 2011. This isn’t just a one-off test. Been there, done that. This is a weeks-long test in a real-world environment, carrying paying passengers.

Upgraded: Classic airport security cartoons
In a good reminder that frustration with the TSA is nothing new, the New Yorker provides a brief cartoon retrospective mocking airport security. One dates back to 1938. Alas, most are post-9/11.

The national anger at the TSA is not just taking a toll on passengers’ patience — and rights. It’s now also taking a toll on airlines’ bottom lines: In the abstract, of course, some people will be dissuaded from traveling because of the bad press the airline experience is getting. But now Delta is, in limited cases, refunding passengers’ tickets even when the tickets were purchased as nonrefundable.

That’s a big deal.

Delta spokeswoman Susan Elliott said Monday that her airline is issuing refunds on a case-by-case basis for customers worried about the new screening steps. The move, however, does not constitute a new refund policy at the airline.

Their competitors haven’t bit yet. No other airlines are cutting passengers any slack. Perhaps that’s because they (and Delta, actually) aren’t actually raising a red flag yet:

The Delta and American officials said they were not seeing large numbers of cancelations related to the new security checks, but they had no specific numbers.

“I can’t say no one has canceled,” [American Airlines spokesman Tim] Smith said, adding that it’s “just not a trend.”

Hmm. Well, if it’s not a trend, then why is Delta giving anyone any refunds for this reason? …and why are they admitting it to journalists?! I suspect that Delta’s admission is a tell, and that we’ll hear more in coming weeks about how the TSA’s rules are affecting the airlines’ businesses. Not this week — planes are full for the Thanksgiving holiday — and maybe not even in December, as other holiday travel ramps up. But if public anger is still high in January (and it very well could be if changes are slow in coming) then expect to see airlines lobbying to change the TSA gropefest.

I know the discussion of the TSA is inevitably tiresome by now. But this item caught my attention:

Rep. John Mica, the Republican who will soon be chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is reminding airports that they have a choice.

Mica, one of the authors of the original TSA bill, has recently written to the heads of more than 150 airports nationwide suggesting they opt out of TSA screening.

Opt out of TSA screening? Great tagline, and yes, it’s possible: “The 2001 law creating the TSA gave airports the right to opt out of the TSA program in favor of private screeners after a two-year period.”

Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Opting out is actually called the “Screening Partnership Program,” but you’re not rid of the TSA just by asking them to leave. Sure, they may fire the federal screeners, but airports still have to maintain the TSA’s standards, procedures, and policies, even if the actual workers doing the screenings aren’t federal employees. So, from a traveler’s perspective, it’s a complete and utter wash.

So who has opted out already?

There are seventeen airports participating in a Screening Partnership Program: San Francisco International Airport, Kansas City International Airport, Greater Rochester International Airport, Sioux Falls Regional Airport, Jackson Hole Airport, Tupelo Regional Airport, Key West International Airport, Charles M. Schultz-Sonoma County Airport, Roswell Industrial Air Center, Havre, Lewistown, Sidney-Richland (SDY), MT, Glasgow, Wolf Point, Glendive, Miles City and E. 34th Street Heliport (6N5), NY.

The biggest player is obviously San Francisco, which joined the SPP in November 2006. I’ve flown to and through SFO in that time, though admittedly not in about a year, but never noticed anything out of the ordinary at the time.

But at the end of the day, don’t let the rhetoric fool you. Yes, an opt-out provision exists for airports, but you’ll still be subject to TSA-mandated security techniques. Prepare for your groping, even at an airport that has opted out.

Categorized in: airport security, TSA