Airport baggage rules: What can Malaysians take on board the plane?

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On a holiday to Yogyakarta, Indonesia with her husband in 2018, Eileen Teoh had spotted some pedlars around Mount Merapi selling batu lesung, or pestle and mortar. Being an ardent cook, the homemaker from Selangor had her heart set on buying the traditional items and bring them back home to Malaysia.

However, she wasn’t sure whether or not the items would pass airport screening.

“The seller said that there won’t be any problem as many other tourists before us have also bought the batu lesung,” said Teoh.

Made from lava rocks, batu lesung is a surprisingly popular souvenir among tourists to Mount Merapi, an active stratovolcano. Assured by the seller’s explanation, Teoh bought three stone mortars – one for herself and another two as gifts for her children.

When packing for a trip, it’s good to familiarise your respective airline’s baggage policy. — FreepikWhen packing for a trip, it’s good to familiarise your respective airline’s baggage policy. — Freepik

When it came time to catch her flight home, Teoh packed the stone mortars in her carry-on luggage since they were fragile. However, she was stopped by an officer during security check.

“The officer said the stone mortars weren’t allowed on board the cabin. Fortunately, he said that we could bring them in our check-in luggage,” Teoh explained.

Although Teoh and her husband had to rearrange their items at a busy airport (“We wrapped layers of clothing around the batu lesung!”), she was glad her treasured kitchen companion made the journey back to Malaysia.

Teoh’s story had a happy ending – the stone mortars are now proudly displayed in her kitchen and her children’s respective homes. But there are many incidences where travellers had to leave their items behind due to baggage policy, especially when it comes to carry-on luggage.

For the safety of all

Baggage restriction policy, as a whole, can be pretty daunting even to the most seasoned traveller.

Most airlines adhere to the safety standards recommended by aviation agencies such as the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and International Air Transport Association (IATA).

“Some items may endanger the safety of an aircraft or persons on board, and these dangerous materials can either be forbidden or restricted for air transport,” IATA says on its website.

Many of us would be familiar with the restriction on liquids, aerosols and gels in our carry-on luggage. — FilepicMany of us would be familiar with the restriction on liquids, aerosols and gels in our carry-on luggage. — Filepic

IATA works closely with local governments and ICAO on the development of regulations.

“This way, we ensure that the rules and guidelines on dangerous goods transport are effective and operationally practical,” IATA notes.

Today, many of us are already familiar with the restriction on liquids, aerosols and gels (also known as “LAGS”). Hands up if you have had your seemingly innocuous shampoo confiscated at the airport.

As it turns out, this ruling has a far- reaching security impact.

The carry-on luggage liquid allowance restriction on flights was introduced in 2006. It came after British police foiled an attack plot by terrorists, who disguised explosive devices in soft drink bottles.

The terrorists had planned to assemble the bombs on board planes and blast up to 10 transatlantic flights.

As a result of the incident, LAG items – such as drinks, creams, perfumes, sprays, gels and toothpaste – must be in containers that have a maximum capacity of 100ml/mg. And all containers must fit comfortably in a medium-sized transparent resealable plastic bag. Each passenger is limited to only one transparent resealable plastic bag with a volume no greater than one litre.

Of course, there are other items that are understandably on the restricted items list, like firearms and other weapons. Unfortunately, some people still don’t seem to know just how dangerous these hazardous goods are.

Case in point: Remember in April when a family of American tourists thought it would be great to keep an old, unexploded bomb they found while visiting Israel, as a souvenir? They stored it in their luggage and as they were about to go through security check at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, one of them asked the officers about the shell.

Needless to say, chaos ensued at the airport as everyone scrambled to get out of the building.

A check on local carriers’ official websites reveals that firearms, explosives, flammable and non-inflammable gas (aerosol paints, butane gas, lighter refills), refrigerated gas (filled aqualung cylinders, liquid nitrogen), flammable liquids (thinners, solvents) and flammable solids (matches, fire lighters) are just some things that cannot be carried into the aircraft for any reason whatsoever.

AirAsia for one, reminds passengers that the list is not exhaustive and other items may be included in the future.

“Our crew reserves the right to confiscate any item deemed as a threat to the safety of our guests,” the carrier says on its website.

Meanwhile, Malaysia Airlines made the news earlier this year when it banned self-heating, ready-to-eat meals in either checked or cabin baggage due to “safety concerns”.

These include heat packs or self-heating packs such as quick and easy hot pot, rice and drinks.

“These packs contain dangerous substances such as magnesium powder, iron powder, self-burning solid carbon or corrosive calcium oxide that release flammable gas on contact with water,” the carrier said earlier in a statement.

Managing risks

The idea of banning easy hot pot packs on a plane may seem ridiculous. But over the years, there have been cases where passengers were barred from travelling with seemingly harmless items. These include cooking spray, wrapped gifts and toy swords.

Airports Council International senior manager (Security, Safety and Operations) Nicholas Ratledge questioned the relevance of ICAO’s suggested list of prohibited items in an opinion piece.

“As it stands, the ICAO’s suggested list of prohibited items contains a large number of items, some of which are still very relevant, and some of which address possibly outdated risks,” he said.

An example he highlighted was the ban on catapults on board planes.

“Somewhat surprisingly, international guidelines say that a catapult is considered a prohibited item for travel onboard an aircraft. A catapult is not exactly the smallest item that can fit in a carry-on bag.

“This brings to question the prohibited list and how relevant it is for today’s travelling public,” he said.

However, Ratledge conceded that it is not easy to remove items from the restricted list.

“While some items have been added over the years, it is difficult to remove other items because decision-makers are often averse to risks. No decision-maker wants to take responsibility for a (very unlikely) hijacking made possible by a catapult that was allowed onboard,” he said.

That being said, a prohibited items list is an important element of the aviation security system. It could also prepare passengers on what to pack for their travels.

“The list is crucial in achieving a certain level of harmonisation globally. Passengers expect, or at least hope that the items carried from an airport of origin will not be confiscated at transfer points or during their return journey,” said Ratledge.

A good advice would be to check with your respective airline on the list of prohibited items if you have any doubt. After all, nobody likes the idea of parting with your prized possessions at the airport.

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