Confusion is expected at UK airports today, as some, but not all, drop the much-maligned "one cabin bag only" security rule.
From today, 22 airports, including Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester, will permit air passengers to take two pieces of cabin baggage aboard flights. However at 13 others, including Gatwick, Bristol and Luton, passengers will still have to abide by the one-bag-per-person policy in place since airport security was tightened in August 2006, since these airports have not been able to demonstrate to the Department for Transport (DfT) that they can cope with an easing of the restriction.
To add to difficulties for passengers, the one-bag rule is being lifted on some connecting flights at Gatwick but remains in place for most passengers at the West Sussex airport.
"We have told the Government that there is potential for confusion," said Simon Evans, chief executive of the Air Transport Users Council. "Since August 2006, we have all been urging people to become acquainted with the one-bag rule and to read the DfT advice. Now the message has changed and there is no longer one consistent message."
Britain's leading low-cost airline has also slammed the new "two-tier" cabin-baggage regime. Andy Harrison, chief executive of easyJet, said: "There is massive scope for customer confusion in an environment where UK airports are adopting different policies."
In the bizarre new world of security, easyJet will fly from seven UK airports that qualify for the more relaxed regime and another seven that do not. Meanwhile British Airways passengers face different rules depending on whether they fly from Heathrow or Gatwick.
Between the uncovering of an alleged terrorist plot in August 2006 and this morning, Britain imposed a rule out of step with the rest of the world. The DfT insisted it would be risky to allow more than one bag through the security checkpoint. Leading airlines, including British Airways and Virgin Atlantic, protested vehemently against a policy that, they claimed, was costing them millions of pounds as passengers switched to other European hubs.
The new Transport Secretary, Ruth Kelly, invited airports to demonstrate that they have the systems, staff and technology to process passengers carrying more than one piece of cabin baggage.
By the end of December, 21 airports had proved they had "sufficient screening capacity whilst being able to maintain the [required] security standards"; Newcastle joined the "premier league" last Thursday, though a British Airways circular to frequent fliers on Friday suggested incorrectly that it had not yet made the grade.
The failure of Gatwick, Britain's second-busiest airport, to prove to the DfT that it could cope with a relaxation of the rules presents a big problem for British Airways as the Sussex airport is the airline's second hub. BA's commercial director, Robert Boyle, said: "We want to see the restrictions lifted at Gatwick in line with other major UK airports as quickly as possible."
The potential for muddle is immense; flying from Heathrow to Belfast, for example, travellers can take two bags on board; heading south, only one is allowed. And even if an airport permits two bags through the checkpoint, the airline may not allow more than one on board the plane. Ryanair, which carries more international passengers than any other airline in the world, strictly enforces a one-bag limit; easyJet says all passengers departing UK airports must do the same.
The chief executive of easyJet claimed that BAA, the Spanish-owned company running Britain's busiest airports, is using the relaxation of the one-bag rule as a pretext to increase passenger charges. "They increased charges when the restriction was introduced and now they want to increase charges again to remove it," said Mr Harrison.
The existing rules on liquids remain in place at all UK airports; containers are limited to 100ml, and must be carried within a transparent, re-sealable plastic bag.
Cabin baggage restrictions
AIRPORTS ALLOWED TO RELAX ONE-BAG POLICY
Aberdeen; Birmingham; Cardiff; Edinburgh; Glasgow; Heathrow; Inverness; London City; Manchester; Newcastle; Prestwick; Southampton; Stansted; (Plus nine smaller airports)
AIRPORTS WHERE ONE-BAG POLICY REMAINS
Belfast George Best City; Belfast International; Bournemouth; Bristol; Doncaster Sheffield; Durham Tees Valley; East Midlands; Exeter; Gatwick; Jersey; Leeds/Bradford; Liverpool John Lennon; Luton; (Plus many smaller airports)