All good things in life have to come to an end, and the airport experience in China is no exception. Air travel regulations seem to change faster than air fares these days. When I wrote about breezing through Chinese airport security checks for the March column, little did I realize things would take a dramatic turn.
A 19-year-old Uighur woman with a suspicious soda can. An alert flight attendant detecting smell of gasoline emanating from a lavatory. A flight diversion to Lanzhou with two terrorist suspects in custody. These were some of the details released by the government about a foiled plot to blow up China Southern flight CZ 6901 en route from Urumqi to Beijing on March 7.
The events are reminiscent of an Al-Qaeda-linked plan aimed at US-bound airliners from Britain in the summer of 2006. Like their British and American counterparts, the Chinese civil aviation authorities acted swiftly after the incident.
Although carry-on restrictions have been in place in China for a year, the one-liter cap on liquids for domestic passengers had largely been sensibly overlooked. The practice had allowed road warriors to bring toiletries on board after clearing proper and efficient security checks.
After a week of post-incident confusion, during which quite a few friends’ ChapSticks were confiscated at airports around the country, the Chinese government announced a near-complete ban on liquids for domestic flights. Exceptions are prescription medicines needed during the flight and the rather vaguely worded “limited number of cosmetics for personal use” – with each item containing less than 100 milliliters of liquid. Your favorite lip balms seem to be fine for now.
Babies aren’t so lucky this time: Formulas are not exempt. Airlines will provide them free of charge, but parents have to request in advance and have no choice in brands – perhaps one way to toughen up those flying “little emperors.”
For those of you familiar with US and UK airport procedures, if you look at the new Chinese routine and are waiting for the other shoe to drop – well, it already has. Starting March 26, passengers may have to take their shoes off while going through metal detectors. So if your socks have holes in them, it’s time to buy some new ones.
What’s more, if you travel with extra batteries for your cell phone and laptop, think twice. Many Chinese airports have a limit of two lithium batteries for each personal gadget you bring on board – either in carry-on or in checked bags. Security personnel will also conduct more pat-down and hand searches.
All the beefed-up measures ahead of the Olympics have sparked heated online debates. While most fliers appear to be willing to make some personal sacrifice for air travel safety, others blame negligence – not the old rules themselves – for the CZ 6901 incident. State media have reported security officers at the Urumqi airport failed to ask the female suspect to sip the content of the soda can as required.
With the tightened procedures snarling many checkpoint lines, major Chinese airports have increased the cut-off time for passenger check-in. For all you procrastinators out there, don’t try to cut it too fine. As inconvenient as the new rules may seem, you will likely find the experience after missing your original flight even more unpleasant. Steven Jiang
This article was originally published on page 32 of the May 2008 issue of That's Beijing magazine.