EU maintains total liquids ban on flights for now

In a last-minute U-turn, the European Union on Friday maintained a total ban on taking liquids on aircraft after several states refused to allow passengers to carry duty-free drinks in hand luggage.

The European Commission had planned to partially lift the five-year ban Friday by allowing passengers travelling from non-EU nations to an EU state, or who are in transit, to carry duty-free goods containing liquids.

But in a sudden change of heart, EU Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas said he was advising EU nations to defer the removal of the restrictions "for a limited period" as a "growing number" of states had indicated they would choose to maintain the ban.

The EU's executive arm said it would review the situation with member states and consult with the United States, a major destination for European travellers, which has not indicated how it would respond to Europe relaxing its rules.

Authorities worldwide banned containers of liquids and gels exceeding 100 millilitres (3.4 ounces) in 2006 after British police foiled a transatlantic plot to detonate liquid explosives aboard airliners flying to Canada and the United States.

The European Commission's bid to begin to relax the rules is part of an effort to remove all restrictions by 2013 by applying screening methods for liquids, rather than banning them.

Currently, for example, a passenger who buys a bottle of vodka at the duty free shop in Moscow must throw it away at the security checkpoint when transiting in Frankfurt before flying on to London.

France is among EU states refusing to relax the ban, arguing that the country, active in military operations in Libya and Afghanistan, remains a target for attacks.

Justifying the decision to maintain the ban, Kallas said that telling states to allow duty free gels and liquids while others refuse to lift the restrictions would create confusion for passengers.

"Therefore, the restrictions on carrying duty-free liquids purchased outside the EU through European airports should remain in place until passengers can travel with certainty," he said.

Under special rules, passengers are still allowed to carry duty-free liquids from international airports in Canada and the United States as well as six Croatian airports, the Changi Airport in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The Association of European Airlines, which favours a relaxation of the rules, nevertheless welcomed the commission's decision as the "least worst" solution given that many states refused to lift the ban and the US reaction remained unclear.

"We repeatedly voiced concerns about the US situation, but we were assured it would be resolved ahead of the 29 April deadline. This should not have been a last-minute issue," said AEA secretary general Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus.

Without clarification from the United States, however, passengers flying from Europe to US destinations could have faced further screening or had their liquids confiscated, the AEA said.

"The USA and Europe must communicate openly and as equals, especially given the international nature of the airline industry," he said.