Originally published in the Middletown Press, Bristol Press and New Britain Herald, November 9, 2008
Three is a popular fairy-tale number: three bears, three wishes, third time’s the charm, and three ounces is the most shampoo frequent flyers can haul in their carry-on bags without terrorists hijacking the plane.
That last example’s not just a fairy tale; it’s an official United States Government anti-terrorism policy in effect since 2006, when the Transportation Security Administration first implemented its airport Rule of Three.
That’s the rule saying you can’t have more than three ounces of shampoo, hairspray, conditioner or any other liquid or gelatinous grooming product on an airplane. These items, along with such others as suntan lotion, bug repellent and moisturizer, must conform to the Rule of Three or else share space on the same TSA forbidden-danger list that includes dynamite, hand grenades and flare guns.
Confession: We committed a federal crime. Last time we flew out of state, we violated national security by smuggling nine ounces of shampoo — six over the limit — in our carry-on bag. We hid the shampoo in plain sight; two TSA agents looked right at it and said nothing. Now we wonder: Would it be ethical for us to tell you how we broke federal law and got away with it?
Tough call. What if somebody reading this turns out to be a terrorist who wants to blow up an airplane but needs nine ounces of shampoo to do it? And since the TSA will only let him have three he’s all discouraged and sad and about to give up, until he does an online search for “Shampoo-smuggling techniques” and finds this column here.
The government says a lot of people could die if we share our smuggling expertise with you.
Or maybe not. On Oct. 2, TSA director Kip Hawley announced that the agency might suspend the Rule of Three next year, if they’re allowed to buy some expensive scanning equipment first. So if we get in trouble for disseminating knowledge in violation of the anti-terrorism laws, we can just look innocent and say “Oops! That column wasn’t supposed to run until next year, or whenever Kip Hawley in his infinite wisdom decided to end the Rule of Three because under his leadership America became strong enough to handle the threat of clean-haired vacationers. Who let this go to print early? It’s probably some intern’s fault. Or the editor’s. Definitely not ours, though.”
So we’ll tell you the secret (if you’re an overprotective parent, have your kids leave the room now): The way to carry nine ounces of shampoo onto an airplane in violation of the Rule of Three is to decant it into multiple small bottles of less than three ounces each.
And we did.
We used a variety so TSA wouldn’t get suspicious: Two ounces in a bottle whose label proclaimed it to be the complimentary hand lotion found in hotel bathrooms. Another 1.5 in a “Hand Sanitizer” jar. Two ounces honestly identified as the shampoo they were. And so on.
The woman ahead of us in the screening line carried only five ounces of shampoo, but TSA confiscated it anyway because it was in a single five-ounce bottle. Our nine ounces made it through just fine because we, unlike that woman, are self-taught hazmat experts who know how to safely transport shampoo through American airspace — in dribs and drabs that don’t combine to break the Rule of Three.