Grounded by liquid laws

Knowing when to buy is critical if you don't want your duty-free alcohol confiscated when boarding, writes Michael Gebicki.

The scene: an inspection point at an international departure gate in an overseas airport. Security staff examine the carry-on luggage of passengers about to board a flight to Australia. One has a bottle of cognac confiscated and is apoplectic. She bought it from a duty-free shop inside the airport where she boarded her previous flight, she says. Here's the docket, stapled to the outside of a sealed bag. But the officers are stone-faced. She and her cognac will not board this flight together.

Buying is easy, but getting to drink it is another matter.

It's a common experience, repeated hundreds of times daily at airports around the world. For several years, passengers have been restricted in the liquids, aerosols and gels (LAG items) that they may have in their carry-on luggage to a maximum container size of 100 millilitres.

However, once past the security screening point of an international airport, you enter the glittering world of duty-free shops, where alcohol is not packed in 100-millilitre containers. Buying is easy, but getting to drink it is another matter. While the staff behind the duty-free counter at one airport are happy to sell you a bottle of liquor, security staff at another airport are liable to wrench it from your hands. The bite usually comes when your itinerary requires a transit stop.

The problem arises from the restrictions countries impose on inbound aircraft governing the carriage of LAG items.

In the case of Australia, according to the Department of Infrastructure and Transport's TravelSECURE website: "Australia requires airlines to put in place procedures at overseas airports for flights to Australia ... In general, the only liquids, aerosols and gels that are allowed in a passenger's carry-on baggage are ... duty-free liquids, aerosols and gels purchased at the airport and delivered to the boarding gate for the passenger. No other duty-free will be permitted (that is duty-free bought at Heathrow will not be permitted through Singapore)."

How do you make sure you and your duty-free alcohol remain close friends? The fail-safe way is to buy when you arrive at your final destination. Most international airports including Sydney and Melbourne shunt arriving passengers through a duty-free chicane. Another option is to buy your alcohol on-board the aircraft on the final leg of your journey - but the choice is limited.

Finally, you can buy from the duty-free shops in the airport before you board the aircraft that will take you to your final destination. If you do, you need to make sure your purchases are packed in a security tamper-evident bag (STEB), with the invoice attached on the outside. At some airports, such as Singapore's Changi and O.R. Tambo in Johannesburg, you will not be allowed to collect your LAG items at the point of purchase. Instead they will be delivered to a collection point somewhere close to your boarding gate.

Note that you should only buy your duty-free alcohol at the stop immediately prior to your final destination. For example, if you buy duty-free alcohol in London and you're on a flight to Australia that stops in Abu Dhabi, you will not be permitted to board your next flight in Abu Dhabi with your alcohol even though your purchase might be properly packed and documented.

So what happens to all that confiscated booze? Airport staff will tell you it's disposed of. Hmmm.