Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Confusing rules over lighters & planes

Confused rules over what may or may not be carried by airline passengers is leading to anger and disputes amongst travellers. This is especially true of lighters and matches. While devices that might pose a terror risk should be vetted, the rules applied are not standard with some airlines applying different restrictions to others. It all leads to confusion for travellers. Travelling from London Heathrow in 2008 security staff were informing travellers that one lighter per passenger was allowed within the cabin. Previously such objects had to be deposited or placed within checked-in luggage. 

A traveller from New Zealand was recently told his lighter could not be placed in the hold, but that he could carry it on his person. But for passengers travelling from some airports the restrictions go further. Travellers have specifically referred to German airports and those in China where they have been told lighters and matches may not be carried either in the cabin nor placed within their checked-in baggage. For those with a cheap disposable lighter or a box of matches it is not perhaps a major issue, but for those travelling with their favourite Zippo or similar item this is of greater concern. Zippo lighter cost around $20, but a solid gold Zippo may exceed $1,600. 

Prior to 2001 no such restrictions existed. However following the terror attacks in New York and the attempted attack by so-called shoe-bomber Richard Reid, passengers have seen increased restrictions on what they may or may not bring aboard aircraft. Knives were the first items to go along with other sharp objects such as nail-files, scissors and razors. After Reid's attempt to detonate explosives in his shoes matches and lighters were also banned. When the liquid-bomb plot was uncovered the restrictions stretched to drinks, toothpaste, creams and make-up. But while these items were banned within the cabin, passengers could at least place them inside their checked-in baggage. But lighters pose a different problem.

A search on Google will highlight dozens of travellers who have had their trusty Zippo confiscated. Ian Scattergood writing on his blog, describes how German security had "stolen" his Zippo. He states that this policy was not implemented at other European airports. In China airport security is particularly strict. In 2008 tvnewswatch had a Zippo confiscated after it was identified inside checked-in baggage. The empty shell was returned but security retained the inside part. This seemed incongruous, given the very same lighter had been carried to China from Britain a month earlier. After writing to the American company, Zippo were very gracious in sending a new inside replacement without charge. But the rules have not relaxed one year on and signs at airports state that lighters and matches may not be carried on board aircraft. 

At Beijing International airport passengers will be asked to remove any lighters from their bags. They are only given a choice of disposing of them or depositing them with security such that they might be picked up later. This is fine for those returning to the airport, but for those passengers who are not there is no option other than to dispose of an expensive lighter. On arrival back at Beijing the passenger may also find themselves a long way from where they should collect their offending item. Some return flights arrive at terminal 3 and one is forced to make an arduous journey by a free (fortunately) shuttle bus to terminal 1 to retrieve the belongings. After handing over the receipt [pictured above] and passport the item is finally returned. The catch is that items must be claimed within 30 days.

In 2005 the US Transportation Security Administration banned all lighters from being brought onto planes. According to CNN the ban of such items was already in place as regards checked-in baggage. However, rules were relaxed in 2007 and the TSA website states lighters may be checked into baggage if drained of fuel, and 'common' lighters may be taken in person. 

In a PDF document posted on the TSA website it states "lighters without fuel are permitted in checked baggage" but that "lighters with fuel are prohibited in checked baggage, unless they adhere to the Department of Transportation (DOT) exemption, which allows up to two fueled lighters if properly enclosed in a DOT approved case." In addition it advises passenger uncertain as to whether a lighter is prohibited to "please leave it at home." Nonetheless the document, updated in March 2009, says that common lighters (though it's unclear if Zippos fall into this category), but not torch lighters, are allowed to be carried on board. The BAA website states that "passengers may carry a single lighter about their person" but may not place further lighters in baggage, either checked-in or carry-on.

Several companies sell DOT approved cases which would allow a Zippo to be placed in checked-in baggage [link / link], however it is probable such containers would not meet approval from all airlines and airport authorities outside the US. In fact China and India a particularly strict with regards the carrying of lighters. The Civil Aviation Administration of China prohibits both matches and lighters in the aircraft cabin and in checked baggage for the flights departing from the mainland China, except Hong Kong. Similar restrictions also apply in India as laid down in rules set by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (Ministry of Civil Aviation).

It is the variance in rules and the inconsistencies applied that have made air travel fraught for many passengers. Although inconvenient it may be best to mail the offending lighter home by a courier firm such as UPS, though given the costs involved, many may just take the risk of smuggling the lighter home in their suitcase.

While many restrictions put in place since 9/11 are warranted, there needs to be consistency across all airlines and all airport authorities. There have been few terrorist attacks since 9/11 and whenever the goalposts are changed as to what may be brought on board, terrorists simply change their tactics. After screening for guns and bombs, they moved to knives. After knives and sharp objects were barred terrorists attempted to smuggle bombs in shoes. As passengers' footwear was scrutinised would-be bombers placed explosives in their underwear. 

So-called naked scanners being rolled out will just change the methodology of the terrorist, or indeed shift the focus of attack. But for millions of passengers, travel by air is a stressful security nightmare with the uncertainty of whether valuable items are to be confiscated. If it wasn't so far from Beijing to London, the train might be a preferable method of transport, though seeing the x-ray scanners now installed at Beijing's subway stations since 2008, rail travel may soon go the same way as the airlines.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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