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Wine a No-Go on Airplanes

Airport security alert results in ban of all liquids carried onto passenger jets

Eric Arnold
Posted: August 10, 2006

Amid this morning's news of the massive antiterrorist operation in England that resulted in the apprehension of 24 suspects, the airline and tourism industries weren't the only ones bracing for the possible fallout. Authorities have, for now, banned all liquid-containing vessels--including wine bottles--from carry-on luggage for flights within the United States and flights from the United Kingdom to the United States.

The ban comes during summer vacation season, when many Americans are traveling in California, Washington, Oregon or other U.S. wine regions, as well as in Europe, and tote home bottles of the local wines.

"To the extent that you would plan to return to New York from California with your wines, you can't do that in the cabin anymore," said airline industry consultant Robert Mann Jr., based in Port Washington, N.Y. Instead, travelers will have to place bottles in checked luggage, a practice that is currently still permitted. "The only issue is whether you feel it's sufficiently well protected--that it's not going to break," Mann added.

If the restriction were to last beyond this security alert, it could have an impact on tasting-room sales if travelers curtail their purchases because they are confused about the policies or think getting the wine home will be too much of a hassle. Sebastiani Vineyards spokeswoman Kelly Conrad said, "We've had a lot of travelers in the tasting room ask, but many are not yet aware of what's going on. We're telling them to buy [padded cartons] and plan to check their wine."

According to press conferences held this morning by British police and security services, the suspects planned to smuggle explosive chemicals in cosmetics or beverage containers onto as many as 9 or 10 passenger jets bound for the United States. The suspects allegedly planned to mix the chemicals and detonate them mid-flight.

As a result, U.S. authorities are requiring that items such as water bottles, perfume, sunscreen, toothpaste and countless other liquid-holding containers be placed in checked baggage. The sudden implementation of the new restrictions caused significant flight delays and cancellations, as travelers sorted through their belongings. (Various news media are telling stories of travelers who had to part with recently purchased wines; the Dallas Morning News reported that hundreds of bottles were sitting at security checkpoints in the San Francisco airport waiting to be disposed of.) In the United Kingdom, travelers were prevented today from bringing on any carry-on luggage, except for items such as IDs, wallets and small purses.

Julien Stevens, a spokesman for U.K.-based retailer Berry Bros. and Rudd, which does a lot of international business, said that the company has been instructing customers bringing wines on planes to pack them in Styrofoam boxes and check them. But the best option, Stevens said, is to ship wine separately.

U.S. winery industry organizations intend to get out that message as long as the restrictions are in place. "I think we need to remind people that for almost any state, if you're at a tasting room, you can ask them to ship it," said Bill Nelson, president of Wine America, a trade group of wineries across the country. "For most states that works."

While wine-shipping regulations have eased up in recent years, there are still some states that don't allow consumers to order from wineries and have their purchases shipped directly to their homes. But in 2002, in response to tightened airline-security measures, the federal government passed a law that allows winery visitors to ship wine home when traveling--if their state of residence would have allowed them to carry that wine in personally. "We want to get the word out to people that if they want to have wine shipped, they should just ask," Nelson added. If the shipment would be legal under either state or federal law, wineries shouldn't have a major problem fulfilling the request.

Several wineries in California have already prepared their tasting-room staff to handle customers' questions about bringing wine home. Allison Simpson, vice president of corporate communications for Foster Wine Estates, said that the tasting-room managers at Beringer, Meridian and Chateau Souverain met today with their employees about the issue.

"We're trying to be proactive," she said. "When people buy wine to take home we're reminding them that security is much tighter. We're supplying people with the names of local shippers and, of course, we ship to reciprocal states."

While wineries have the option to ship, airport duty-free stores--many of which do big business in wine and liquor--face a different set of problems. "It's been pretty quiet," said a cashier at Heathrow Airport tonight as she sold sun cream to a woman traveling to Spain. "It's only starting to get a little busy as passengers are starting to move again." However, she said, she has been instructed that no liquids are to be sold to Americans flying home, under any circumstances. "If you were flying to New York and put a bottle of wine in front of me, I would have to refuse you a sale."

"There's going to have to be a total rewrite as to how that policy and process works," said Mann of duty-free sales in airports. "You can figure out what to do with a cup of coffee--just drink it. I'm not sure what you're going to do with a fifth of UK's finest"--or a bottle of wine--"that you just purchased in duty free."

Mann speculated that airlines might eventually have to charge customers to check all their suitcases since the carriers suddenly have more checked baggage to deal with, and it costs them time and money. But he couldn't say whether the airlines would make it more difficult to check a case of wine due to security concerns.

It's not clear yet how long the current restrictions will remain in place or how widespread they might become. Aside from the United Kingdom and United States, Mann said that other countries have not enforced similar carry-on restrictions. (So if you're flying to the United States from France and want to bring wine in your carry-on bags, for now it's no problem.) But if intelligence suggests that liquid containers are a long-term security concern, "[it] might become a standard policy elsewhere, such as France, Australia or South Africa," he said.

If today's arrests turn out to be the end of concerns over liquid containers, he added, "it'll be a momentary freak-out, and policies and processes will slowly--and hopefully surely--return to a more stable equilibrium," he said. But if there are coconspirators who remain at large, he asked, "How long do you maintain a policy that's a hoped-for deterrent to [them]?"

—Additional reporting by Tim Fish in California and Jacob Gaffney in London.

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