Restrictions limiting UK-originating airline passengers to a single piece of hand luggage are to be relaxed from early next year, although airports must first prove that they can maintain existing security levels.

The one-bag limit was introduced late last summer after UK police foiled an alleged plot to use liquid explosives to sabotage transatlantic flights. It was implemented so that security staff could effectively screen hand luggage for a wider range of potentially dangerous items.

Addressing the Airport Operators Association’s (AOA) annual conference in London on 14 November, UK transport secretary Ruth Kelly said: “We were clear from the beginning, that this was a temporary arrangement - and that the one-bag rule would change once the industry had demonstrated its ability to screen passengers and bags to an acceptable standard, in the light of the new threat.”

Acting on the advice of a working group, which was formed in July, Kelly has adopted a plan to gradually relax the restriction from 7 January next year.

Under a tightly controlled cutover, Kelly says airports must prove to UK Department for Transport security division TranSec that they can increase capacity while maintaining today’s stringent security standards. She says this can be achieved by investing in staff, new technology or a combination of both.

Kelly says: “We are inviting each airport to submit plans to Transec to take advantage of new technology, operational innovations and unexploited capacity in the system to make a real difference to passengers as soon as possible.

“Transec will need to be assured that airports have proved their ability to handle the extra capacity safely and securely before approving any plan.”

The scheme will be rolled out progressively, with early approvals expected from 7 January next year.

Kelly says: “Because airports are so busy at Christmas - and because it’s a time when the priority must be to focus on your core operations - we won’t change the regime before the New Year. The earliest date, therefore, that airports will be able to introduce a new approach to hand luggage will be 7 January 2008.

“I know some airports have been making the investment and changes necessary to move to a new regime and I expect them to come forward with plans shortly. But I recognise that for others this is more of a challenge and will require more time.

“I hope to see rapid progress across the whole country - with all airports submitting plans over the next few months.”

In adopting the new regime, Kelly says she rejected two alternative approaches: “First, simply lifting the one-bag rule at all UK airports now would not be sensible. Too many airports have still not got the necessary screening capacity in place to maintain appropriate security standards.

“And yet waiting until every airport is ready to adopt the new regime would penalise passengers using the rest of the network. I am not prepared to move at the pace of the slowest.

“Our approach is designed to make maximum use of extra capacity as it becomes available, so we can pass the benefits on to the passenger as quickly as possible.”

But Kelly says restrictions on liquids will remain in force: “The methods of attack that came to light last year are still available to terrorists. And so the restrictions on liquids will remain for the foreseeable future - initially in their current form, but evolving as new technologies and procedures allow.”

She adds airports might want to continue with the restrictions to ensure security standards are met, while airlines may choose to keep the cabin bag limit in place for operational reasons.

Responding to the changes, AOA deputy chair and Liverpool airport managing director Neil Pakey says: “Airport operators welcome the flexible approach to hand baggage security adopted by Ruth Kelly.

“Inviting airports to submit security plans rightly rejects a ‘one size fits all approach’, and recognises the diverse situations faced by airports around the country.”

A spokesman for UK airports operator BAA adds: “As the secretary of state has acknowledged, BAA has and is significantly investing in cutting edge aTiX security equipment thereby ensuring that we are ahead of the international competition. 

“We welcome the announcement by the secretary of state to relax the rules on a phased basis starting in the New Year. We believe that this is a sensible approach which strikes the right balance between the needs of passengers and the legitimate demands of security.”