Airport Passenger Screening

It seems like every time someone tests airport security, airport security fails. In tests between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70 percent of knives, 30 percent of guns and 60 percent of (fake) bombs. And recently (see also this), testers were able to smuggle bomb-making parts through airport security in 21 of 21 attempts. It makes you wonder why we’re all putting our laptops in a separate bin and taking off our shoes. (Although we should all be glad that Richard Reid wasn’t the “underwear bomber.”)

The failure to detect bomb-making parts is easier to understand. Break up something into small enough parts, and it’s going to slip past the screeners pretty easily. The explosive material won’t show up on the metal detector, and the associated electronics can look benign when disassembled. This isn’t even a new problem. It’s widely believed that the Chechen women who blew up the two Russian planes in August 2004 probably smuggled their bombs aboard the planes in pieces.

But guns and knives? That surprises most people.

Airport screeners have a difficult job, primarily because the human brain isn’t naturally adapted to the task. We’re wired for visual pattern matching, and are great at picking out something we know to look for—for example, a lion in a sea of tall grass.

But we’re much less adept at detecting random exceptions in uniform data. Faced with an endless stream of identical objects, the brain quickly concludes that everything is identical and there’s no point in paying attention. By the time the exception comes around, the brain simply doesn’t notice it. This psychological phenomenon isn’t just a problem in airport screening: It’s been identified in inspections of all kinds, and is why casinos move their dealers around so often. The tasks are simply mind-numbing.

To make matters worse, the smuggler can try to exploit the system. He can position the weapons in his baggage just so. He can try to disguise them by adding other metal items to distract the screeners. He can disassemble bomb parts so they look nothing like bombs. Against a bored screener, he has the upper hand.

And, as has been pointed out again and again in essays on the ludicrousness of post-9/11 airport security, improvised weapons are a huge problem. A rock, a battery for a laptop, a belt, the extension handle off a wheeled suitcase, fishing line, the bare hands of someone who knows karate … the list goes on and on.

Technology can help. X-ray machines already randomly insert “test” bags into the stream—keeping screeners more alert. Computer-enhanced displays are making it easier for screeners to find contraband items in luggage, and eventually the computers will be able to do most of the work. It makes sense: Computers excel at boring repetitive tasks. They should do the quick sort, and let the screeners deal with the exceptions.

Sure, there’ll be a lot of false alarms, and some bad things will still get through. But it’s better than the alternative.

And it’s likely good enough. Remember the point of passenger screening. We’re not trying to catch the clever, organized, well-funded terrorists. We’re trying to catch the amateurs and the incompetent. We’re trying to catch the unstable. We’re trying to catch the copycats. These are all legitimate threats, and we’re smart to defend against them. Against the professionals, we’re just trying to add enough uncertainty into the system that they’ll choose other targets instead.

The terrorists’ goals have nothing to do with airplanes; their goals are to cause terror. Blowing up an airplane is just a particular attack designed to achieve that goal. Airplanes deserve some additional security because they have catastrophic failure properties: If there’s even a small explosion, everyone on the plane dies. But there’s a diminishing return on investments in airplane security. If the terrorists switch targets from airplanes to shopping malls, we haven’t really solved the problem.

What that means is that a basic cursory screening is good enough. If I were investing in security, I would fund significant research into computer-assisted screening equipment for both checked and carry-on bags, but wouldn’t spend a lot of money on invasive screening procedures and secondary screening. I would much rather have well-trained security personnel wandering around the airport, both in and out of uniform, looking for suspicious actions.

When I travel in Europe, I never have to take my laptop out of its case or my shoes off my feet. Those governments have had far more experience with terrorism than the U.S. government, and they know when passenger screening has reached the point of diminishing returns. (They also implemented checked-baggage security measures decades before the United States did—again recognizing the real threat.)

And if I were investing in security, I would invest in intelligence and investigation. The best time to combat terrorism is before the terrorist tries to get on an airplane. The best countermeasures have value regardless of the nature of the terrorist plot or the particular terrorist target.

In some ways, if we’re relying on airport screeners to prevent terrorism, it’s already too late. After all, we can’t keep weapons out of prisons. How can we ever hope to keep them out of airports?

A version of this essay originally appeared on

Posted on March 23, 2006 at 7:03 AM95 Comments


arl March 23, 2006 7:50 AM

One small addition on the issue of airplanes, they can also be used as human guided missles. We have had hijackings for years, even ones that ended in death. But what got everyone running in circles is the huge death toll of a plane hitting a high population target.

The conclusion is still the same.

Rich March 23, 2006 7:53 AM

My wife collects stones and pebbles on holiday. While returning through Spanish customs she was required to empty her hand luggage. “You have stones” said the guard. After ten or more stones were removed (one at a time) the guard was visibly bored and indicated we should just carry on through, taking our mementoes with us. Perhaps she’d visualized a middle-aged woman crying, “I’ve got a pebble and I’m prepared to use it!”

Bruce Schneier March 23, 2006 7:57 AM

“One small addition on the issue of airplanes, they can also be used as human guided missles. We have had hijackings for years, even ones that ended in death. But what got everyone running in circles is the huge death toll of a plane hitting a high population target.”

I agree. I didn’t explicitly mention it because I didn’t think it affected the point of the essay.

Fishhead March 23, 2006 8:16 AM

Were in Europe do you travel, that you don’t have to remove your laptop from your bag?
It’s a standard procedure at every European airport I know, at least in Shannon, Dublin (everybody also has to remove shoes), Heathrow, Stuttgart, Duesseldorf, Hamburg, Amsterdam, Frankfurt.

Just wondering…

Martin Budden March 23, 2006 8:24 AM

Unfortunately you now have to remove your laptop from your bag in Europe as well. This requirement was introduced in the last few months.

Colin Young March 23, 2006 8:32 AM

The comparison with casinos rotating their dealers is interesting because the casino has a very strong financial interest in securing their house advantage. I wonder what the incentive for the TSA is. After all, a major incident is only going to result in more funding. Perhaps private enterprise with big penalties for failures is the way to go.

Michiel March 23, 2006 8:39 AM

“When I travel in Europe, I never have to take my laptop out of its case or my shoes off my feet.”

I fly around Europe a lot, at least 4 international flights/month. The amount of stupid procedures I’ve had to undergo is staggering. Get notebook out of the bag. Keep notebook in the bag. You’re allowed one lighter. three lighters. zero lighters. Can’t keep the (very small) precision screwdriver. No wait, you can. No, you can’t. There’s no ‘overall plan’ which adds to the frustration.

I’ve been in Moscow where they had not one but two x-ray machines. Unfortunately the girls behind them were happily chatting away and not actually looking at the screen. Pointless.

Maybe you got lucky?

John March 23, 2006 8:49 AM

I don’t think the human-guided missle scenario is relevant anymore. If 9/11 did anything, it made it impossible to hijack a plane. You can blow up a plane, but you can’t hijack it. Prior to 9/11 there was the ‘play along and no one gets hurt’ theory, but I don’t think passengers will ever be compliant again.

Lawrence Micallef March 23, 2006 8:58 AM

Having just got back from Germany via Frankfurt Mein airport, I can report that some changes have been made as far as scanning there.

London City airport did not require laptop out of bag for scan, whereas Frankfurt did – TWICE.

The double scanning seems a waste and is mainly due to poor layout of the secure air-side area of airport allowing passengers to move from arriving flight to departing flight without passing through a security check – so the airport has a second group of screeners for some gates.

Both times I had to remove my shoes (hiking boots with metal eyes) for separate scans.

The Dell laptop had to be removed from its bag and sent through in a separate tray.

By the time I had shed all personal belongings and jackets, I had filled 5 plastic tubs to go through the scanner!

Second scan also involved a mass spectrometer swab and scan of my digital camera and the two lithium ion batteries and my jacket. Not sure what they were scanning for after swabbing my stuff, but was all okay. I guess they were either checking for explosive residue or drugs…

forgeron March 23, 2006 9:00 AM

I especially liked your view about amateur versus “advanced” terrorists.

BTW, I had to remove my shoes in Paris CdG.

Juryman March 23, 2006 9:01 AM

It’s not about security – it’s about obedience training.
Take off your shoes and belt, just step into this de-lousing shower….

JD March 23, 2006 9:07 AM

“….we should all be glad that Richard Reid wasn’t the “underwear bomber.”

Well said! Once in a while we see a comment that wonderfully sums up a whole complex of idiocy in a few pithy words, and that is one.

Stephen S March 23, 2006 9:15 AM

To agree with a number of posters above, screening at European airports can be pretty shambolic and/or intrusive at times. Certainly, I’ve been asked to remove belt and shoes before stepping through metal detectors on two occasions.

Dewey March 23, 2006 9:47 AM

“But what got everyone running in circles is the huge death toll of a plane hitting a high population target.”

Very true and that’s what got the US all concerned about security, not bombs going off (which had been happening for years).

The big weakness which enabled 9/11 was not terrorists sneaking on small blades but the fact that “everyone knows” that the thing to do in a hijacking is just stay calm and cooperative and wait until it’s over. Even on 9/11 it only worked for 3 out of 4. Cell phones got the word out.

As Bruce keeps repeating, the vulnerability was in the human side of things.

There are almost certainly other weaknesses in our reactions, but the “just cooperate” meme is no longer amongst them.

“It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you DO know that ain’t so.”

danie March 23, 2006 9:50 AM

Last year I carried on a large pair of sissors in my computer bag. I did not realize until i was unpacking. The man in front of me was seached.

Jeff March 23, 2006 10:14 AM

Agreed wholeheartedly. I don’t travel as much as I used to, in large part because of the utterly asinine security screening procedures, designed more to create the illusion of safety than to provide it. And while that does have its benefits, notably in returning air-travel volume to previous levels, it is just that illusion which makes terrorist attacks so devastating.

The world trade center was a tragic loss, but it was the panic and virtual shut down of the rest of the country which had a far more lasting economic impact. If people weren’t under the false impression that a terrorist attack could never happened here, the mass panic just wouldn’t have occurred. By pretending we’re more secure than we are, we’re just making the next attack all the more damaging.

another_bruce March 23, 2006 10:34 AM

“the bare hands of someone who knows karate…”. ok, here’s a stock line i’ve been using for many years:
“my worry budget is fully subscribed right now. absolutely no additional worries will be entertained until the beginning of the next worry planning period.”

Erik N March 23, 2006 10:37 AM

A half year after 9/11 in NY I was randomly selected for extra scanning thrice! First at checkin, to have my luggage x-rayed, then at the security check, body search, then at the gate: Extra body search, bags emptied out.

The funny thing was: At the gate, they didn’t believe it was a real camera because it had no flash. So I was asked to take a photo. I still wonder what it was that I was proving: That it didn’t blow up when I took a photo? Nice place for testing that.

Random searches, good, but randomly selecting the same guy is probably not gonna give much more security.

Glauber Ribeiro March 23, 2006 10:37 AM

Ah, you failed to mention, knifes and bombs may be sneaking by, but the screeners have a near-perfect record for detecting laptop computers and shoes!

Plead the Fifth March 23, 2006 10:42 AM

I was actually impressed by something that happened to me at Schipol (Amsterdam airport) last year. Before entering the cordoned of departure lounge, EVERY passenger had to stand face to face with a security agent and answer a series of questions. From what I could tell, the questions varied, but involved things like resons for trip, where going, where coming from, declarable goods, carrying cameras/laptops/other electronics, etc. I don’t know if the questioners are trained to detect physiological cues (sweating, nervousness, inconsistent answers, etc), but this strikes me as similar to what I’ve heard the Israeli airline does: Namely, every person getting on the plane needs to talk to a ticket agent who HAS been trained to look for these things.

This seems to me a more cost effective and confuse-the-terrorist random way to catch both the crazies and the trained terrorists. Anyone else think so?

James March 23, 2006 10:50 AM

Very good essay.

I particularly like the contrast drawn with the stories recently on the NSA mass surveillance programs. It also fits in very well with Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on profiling from last month.

Bob the Bruin March 23, 2006 10:50 AM

In the past, I travelled internationally quite often. Even before 9/11, a problem that I had was lugging 2 or 3 pieces of baggage through the airport, I tended to sweat. I was pulled out of line a few times for extra screening, just because my face was a bit more damp than other people. The cherry on top, most of the time, I was travelling under US official orders.

roy March 23, 2006 11:21 AM

@Plead the Fifth

Israelis are busy hunting nasties of all sorts. Americans are putting on a show called ‘Security Theater’, brought to you by your tax money and surcharges.

Futility March 23, 2006 11:27 AM

As I went thru airport security in Dallas, they did their usual thing (laptop out, shoes off, etc). Once I was in the ‘secure’ terminal area, I thought of smoking a cigarette (yeah, I know, it’s not healthy, so don’t bother commenting on it), but since it was a nice sunny day outside I preferred to leave the ‘secure’ area again to get outside. In order to avoid having to go through security again with all my stuff, I asked the security guard if there are lockers around where I could leave my stuff inside the ‘secure’ area. I was told that after 9/11 all lockers were sealed and cannot be used anymore. I could hardly refrain myself from asking this guy what his answer implied about their confidence in their own security checking procedures (for fear that I would be subjected to additional ‘military-grade’ security checkings)

Joe Buck March 23, 2006 11:28 AM

Passenger airplanes can no longer be used as they were used on 9/11/01. The word is now out; it was out, in fact, on that very day, which is why Flight 93 crashed in Pennsylvania instead of hitting the White House or Congress.

Passengers now know to fight back. Hijackers will now have to subdue a group of people who are willing to fight to the death, because they know that cooperation with the hijackers means death and therefore they have nothing to lose.

Maybe the bad guys could try to take over a cargo plane. A small private plane, on the other hand, has similar mass and fuel to a large SUV, so a small plane ramming a building is about the same as a small truck ramming a building, and not the way to inflict mass casualties.

The Richard Reid model (someone trying to blow up a plane) is the main threat, I think.

Anonymous March 23, 2006 12:37 PM

“The big weakness which enabled 9/11 was …the fact that “everyone knows” that the thing to do in a hijacking is just stay calm and cooperative and wait until it’s over.”

Not at El Al. The one and only El Al flight to be hijacked was in 1968. Next time it was tried, in 1970, the pilot refused to open the cockpit door despite one of the hijackers threatening to explode a grenade. Instead he put the the aircraft into a dive and the hijackers were either subdued or killed in the struggle that followed.

JD March 23, 2006 12:48 PM

“The best time to combat terrorism is before the terrorist tries to get on an airplane.” ….or before he goes after any of an infinite variety of other targets.

So the only defense is to take out the bad guys before they strike…..without, of course, infringing upon the terrorists’ right to privacy (no NSA snooping), their Geneva Convention rights, their Miranda rights, their 4th and 5th Amendment rights, their right to not have their feelings hurt, their right of access to media representives and publishers, etc.

Given the limitations of possible defensive measures, the most valuable remaining strategy is to refuse to be terrorized. The more we cringe and shudder behind all our desperate “security” barriers, the more incentive the terrorists have to believe their actions will have the desired effect.

bob March 23, 2006 1:36 PM

Dave Barry had the best take on airport security in his fiction book “Big Trouble” (partly made into a movie with Tim Allen).

phil March 23, 2006 1:50 PM

“The best time to combat terrorism is before the terrorist tries to get on an airplane.”

Which, of course, is just what our government says they’re doing with all the phone taps you’ve discussed and dissed. Maybe you should give a few pointers on how to do this?

margot March 23, 2006 1:53 PM

Another person speaking about the 9/11 hijackings commented “There are almost certainly other weaknesses in our reactions, but the ‘just cooperate’ meme is no longer amongst them.”

How ironic that the US response to excessive security inspections and the overall reduction in civil liberties since then has been “Well, okay, if you say so.”

Ed T. March 23, 2006 2:28 PM

‘(Although we should all be glad that Richard Reid wasn’t the “underwear bomber.”)’

Ohmygod, just what we don’t need – a bioterror weapon that could be carried on board an aircraft!

(I will now need to poke my brain out with an icepick to get rid of that image… ewwwww!)


Rob Mayfield March 23, 2006 2:50 PM

@margot: … except I think there are a growing number of ordinary citizens who imagine treating their elected members, those who have butchered their civil liberties, in the same way as they imagine they might treat a terrorist on their flight …

JoeDoe March 23, 2006 3:01 PM

Are there any statistics on the effectiveness of US screening procedures? Like, we checked 1.3 million passengers, but we found three EDs in January?

It might help if it seemed like there was some good coming out of all these long lines, some metrics to indicate these searches have some value…

rob March 23, 2006 5:26 PM

Perhaps all of the confusion in the checking processes is to avoid the screeners getting bored ?

Hypothetical (obviously not likely amongst real humans). The Screener Game –

Remove belt – 10 pts
Remove shoes – 10 pts
Remove laptop from bag after replacing it – 20 pts
Remove trousers/skirt – 75 pts
Cavity search – 100 pts
Cavity search without complaint – 200 pts

Most points in shift wins.

On a marginally more serious note, European airports probably require laptops/shoes to be removed because
a) That is the de-facto process and they don’t want to get blamed for performing inadequate searches if a bomb goes off.
b) The US insisted

Anonymous March 23, 2006 6:23 PM

@JoeDoe – Anyone smart enough to be interested in those statistics should be smart enough not to trust them. It would be like asking a con-man if he’s honest.

posedge clk March 23, 2006 7:10 PM

Re: computer-assisted baggage scanning: I remember a demonstration of just such a system developed at the University of Ottawa in 1989. Yes, 17 years ago.

It worked well – picking out guns and bombs from a video stream taken from the X ray machine.

I wonder why it’s not in service…

pH March 23, 2006 7:38 PM

“If the terrorists switch targets from airplanes to shopping malls …”

You say that like it’s a BAD thing. I’ve often thought that blowing up shopping malls would be a good start. 😉

sBob March 23, 2006 7:51 PM

If the baggage checkers get better, the terrorists will find better ways of disguising or hiding their weapons.

Also, some perfectly normal items have been used to hijack planes – such as a bag or package that supposedly contains a bomb.

There have been situations where DVD players on a plane have affected navigation systems, and ?caused a plane to go off course. Could hijackers control a plane like this?

Stefan Wagner March 23, 2006 9:23 PM

On flight Berlin-Lisboa-Berlin, Laptop was detected twice, but I could stay in shoes – perhaps because of the leather sole?

My disassemble bomb wasn’t detected, but I couldn’t assemble it on bord, because the screeners have a near-perfect record for detecting screwdrivers. 🙂

(thanks @Glauber Ribeiro for the idiom)

Steve March 23, 2006 11:15 PM

Phil wrote:

“The best time to combat terrorism is before the terrorist tries to get on an airplane.” — Which, of course, is just what our government says they’re doing with all the phone taps you’ve discussed and dissed.
[end quote]

Just because the government says that their phone taps are combating terrorism, doesn’t mean that they actually are combating terrorism. They might be lying and using them for political purposes; phone taps might be ineffective; and they might even be counterproductive. Or any combination of all three.

Nobody said that it would be easy to combat terrorism without destroying freedom. But the first step is to demand that before we accept ANY reduction in freedom and liberty, we get to see actual evidence that it will make us safer, and not just against pretend and threats and movie scenarios. We should be saying, Mr Politician, before we give you and your hired guns more power over us, where is the evidence that your so-called security measures are going to work?

Shouldn’t we get to choose how much freedom we give up for what level of risk, rather than just automatically rolling over like a trained dog every time somebody says “security”?

RealUlli March 23, 2006 11:58 PM

I have to agree with JD – basically, you cannot defend against every terrorist threat.

IMHO, the best defense against a terrorist threat is to refuse to be terrorised. The attack on 9/11 cost what – 3000 lives? I think there are more people killed in car accidents every month than that! Getting killed in a terrorist attack is about as probable as picking a winning lottery ticket – possibly even less so, yet the media made a big fuss about it.

What the government should do is tell the people that there is no security, and ask them what it should do different to what it is doing now to reduce the threat. (Like supporting Israel on actions that look like taken from a book about the 3rd Reich)

If people were willing to die for their beliefs or the beliefs of their country (which is the point in having an army), terrorists would be a bit pointless. Today, a suicide bomber can take out about 30 people (I think) – but that number would decrease when people were more militant – he would get a few, but he would be dead as well. (See the Pennsilvania crash on 9/11)

I compare that to the Wild West, which was (IMHO) much less wild than purported in the movies – lots of people there were battle-hardened veterans of the civil war, had guns, knew how to shoot and were not afraid to use them on an armed robber. An enraged citizen is much more likely to shoot a perp than a cop!

Andy Fletcher March 24, 2006 1:26 AM

The separate screening of laptops always appears to be an afterthought when it comes to setting up mag and bag systems. It is extremely rare for there to be a suitable non-moving surface to to unpack a laptop worth several thousand dollars from the bag, instead they expect you to perform various gymnastics with a good chance of dropping everything.

This was hammered home to me last week when entering departures at LHR T3 when a girl gave me a plastic bag to unpack my laptop into whilst in the queue for screening. What sort of half assed solution is that?

Finally another plea for designers of screening areas. Waiting 15 minutes in a slowly moving queue can be an extremely painful process for those with bad legs and there is never seating available for those waiting. How about a ticket based queuing system where a sign displays the number of the next people to be screened?

The areas should be designed for the benefit of the user not the management of the airport.

JPe March 24, 2006 7:09 AM

These wont come up without physical search.

Problem with mass spectrometerers is that they can be made useless quite easily by contaminating passengers with explosives residue at bus station etc. causing hundreds “false” alarms for example.

Annie March 24, 2006 7:38 AM

Passenger screening as it stands today is not a countermeasure against terrorist attacks, but an insurance policy against public backlash if these attacks do take place. Thus, it is designed to be closely aligned to “conventional wisdom” in Galbraith’s sense: very conspicuous, very easy to understand, and with a clear cause-effect relationship: “IF it is difficult for me to board the plane with a laptop, THEN it must be really hard for a terrorist to smuggle weapons inside”. As proved above, this is wrong (as conventional wisdom usually is). But the simplicity of it, the cosy way it feeds all our preconceptions and its close logical immediacy makes it too tempting to resist – even though it is completely off the mark.

People is indeed the most difficult part of security.

zaphod March 24, 2006 9:50 AM


Before passing through the detectors don’t forget to remove the metallic ring which they attach (at least to the darts) through the lanyard hole 🙂


Gernot Hassenpflug March 25, 2006 4:04 AM

@Plead the Fifth:
I had similar experience in Austin TX on a flight from Narita to Lima. Questions and interview. Very annoyed that I had to unlock my baggage but was told not allowed to see where it went – planting of something is not an experience I wish to have – nor an reimbursement if something went missing…

alec March 25, 2006 4:13 PM

you’d have to be blind to not see the future: you and your spandex suit board the passenger plane… whilst ALL luggage follows in a droid…

simple… nem?


Nick March 27, 2006 12:56 AM

EL Al use the aforementioned method of interviewing each passenger and they are VERY good at it. No successful hijacks since the 1968 attempt. In fact in 1986 they detected that a lady boarding at LHR had a bomb hidden in her bag despite her being unaware (it was planted) and the bag passing explosive screening measures.

How? By closely observing all passengers near check-in and then chatting/interviewing each one as they check in.

Taking her shoes off wouldn’t been quite as effective..

Andrew Wade March 27, 2006 4:46 PM

So we are trying to stop the clever terrorists, we just have lower expectations in that regard. For that matter, just because someone’s clever doesn’t mean their good at terrorism. Sure, it does raise the odds, but clever people do do stupid things from time to time too.

Andrew Wade March 27, 2006 4:48 PM

D’oh, should have previewed. I was quoting:
“Against the professionals, we’re just trying to add enough uncertainty into the system that they’ll choose other targets instead.”

DigiLife March 29, 2006 5:26 PM

i liked the text that started this thread except for one thing……. i don’t ever remember reading about any technology that could detect karate skills in a person……….

nick s April 4, 2006 9:25 AM

I was actually impressed by something that happened to me at Schipol (Amsterdam airport) last year. Before entering the cordoned of departure lounge, EVERY passenger had to stand face to face with a security agent and answer a series of questions.

Yes. That didn’t happen this time for me on a short-haul flight, but is something I like. Schiphol also now does gate screening of hand-luggage, rather than clogging up the immigration control.

One big problem with US airports is their architecture, originally designed so that non-travellers could accompany travellers to the gate. In the new climate, there are far too many choke-points before screening that could become targets, thus closing down entire airports.

Concerned April 4, 2006 2:00 PM

I do many flights and somehow I am randomly selected for extra screening every time. I am Caucasian of German descent, have never been arrested or even received a speeding fine, am ex military and have clearance to work at secure military installations. So somewhere the profiling is screwed up if I am always selected, makes me worry about who is not being selected. Sure the screening is a deterrent, but it is also an annoyance having to go thru the drill of shoes off, remove belt, jacket and laptop all in a confined space and then reverse the process in another confined space.

Real One April 6, 2006 3:49 AM

Oh dear all ye joe public who know very little.

First of all, I am a screener, so fire your questions and comments at me if you wish.

Now for my reply. The swabbing someone asked about; explosive trace detection.
Why cant you leave bags in lockers? Ever heard the “dont leave your bags unattended” announcement? Its the same thing. Even if its in the Restricted Zone and had the checks carried out, IF, for whatever reason, someone managed to get IED (improvised explosive device) parts through security (VERY doubtful) then it could be constructed in the RZ, put in a locker and boom. Thats why security risk assessors are instantly onto unattended bags whether they be in the restricted zone or not. Portable barringers are used to suck samples from the bag which are then analysed for explosives. In all honesty, in this situation, any IED constructed in the scenario I described wouldnt have much chance of succeeding.

As for you people who rarely travel because of the security checks….EXTREME arrogance. Its people like you who make our job difficult. We get these arrogant passengers who think they are too important to be searched or whatever, when in fact we are just doing our job! Anyone can say “im not carrying anything”, especially a terrorist… So we cant be too careful so you need to put up with random searching and accept it and appreciate it, you would be the first to complain if a prohibited item was permitted on board your flight.

Finally, the person who was searched at check in, security, and the gate; you were made a selectee. Its a TSA thing. I dont know much about it as I work in the UK, but we do have TSA trained security agents at the airport I work at for our transatlantic service, who carry out the same security procedures you described.

Benny April 10, 2006 3:47 PM

@ Real One:

“Why cant you leave bags in lockers? Ever heard the “dont leave your bags unattended” announcement? Its the same thing. Even if its in the Restricted Zone and had the checks carried out, IF, for whatever reason, someone managed to get IED (improvised explosive device) parts through security (VERY doubtful) then it could be constructed in the RZ, put in a locker and boom. Thats why security risk assessors are instantly onto unattended bags whether they be in the restricted zone or not. Portable barringers are used to suck samples from the bag which are then analysed for explosives. In all honesty, in this situation, any IED constructed in the scenario I described wouldnt have much chance of succeeding.”

Aren’t you refuting yourself here? If it is so unlikely that an IED will make it past your screening procedures (and i hope you’re right), then why bar people from using the lockers? Or why can’t you use your barringers to suck and sniff each bag before it’s placed into a locker?

Andre Cross June 7, 2006 6:49 AM

I am an American living and working overseas. Upon my arrival to the U.S. I arrived at my destination to find that my computer and hard drive was stolen from checkin-in luggae while in transit through LAX. Talk about airport security, if it’s easy to steal from passengers, it’ll be easy for a screener to sneak a bomb in country for cheap…

Anna July 7, 2006 6:47 AM

Why don’t they just ban carry-on luggage, close all of those little stores after the security gate and question and check passangers like EL AL airlines does?

TP August 1, 2006 2:59 AM

Everyone should just stop whining about taking laptops out and shoes off. It is really ridiculous. Airport screeners are treated like the “enemy” these days when all they are doing is trying to protect you-the passenger. Give them a break for a change. If they are asking you to take your shoes off, then they are also asking the bad guys too….

Andrew Milner August 11, 2006 7:36 AM

“Your suspenders are setting off the metal detector.”
“Thought that was your department, love.”

d August 14, 2006 10:31 PM

Air passengers, partucularly business travelers, are educated, affluent, self important, superficial and impatient.

Kistel August 16, 2006 4:09 AM


Suppose you HAD a way of detecting someone with a remarkable karate skill. What would you do, deny him flying because of a threat?

Lavarock August 17, 2006 9:47 PM

It’s insanity. They’re banning gels and liquids too, because they could be plastic explosives. Just strap everyone naked to a board, and we’ll all be nice and safe. And just about as comfortable as we were in those damned tiny seats.

I'll just walk August 21, 2006 5:37 PM

@TP: “Everyone should just stop whining about taking laptops out and shoes off. It is really ridiculous. Airport screeners are treated like the “enemy” these days when all they are doing is trying to protect you-the passenger. Give them a break for a change.”

The fault in that argument: The passengers did not agree to this system! Only if this were a voluntary system or one that arose from a truly democratic process would your argument be valid. But when someone else in power declares that now my freedoms must be reduced, it doesn’t matter what justification is given: It’s now someone else asserting power over me. That’s just the opposite of free.

It’s just an extra slap in the face when the justification is, “it’s for your own good.” Funny, seems that that should be for ME to decide.

Jenn B. August 23, 2006 10:36 AM

I’ve checked my laptop in on a handful of occasions. I really have not experienced any problems with doing that. I realize some people safeguard their laptops with their lives, but I don’t feel that much of an emotional attachment to mine. Lol. I always make sure to back up my data every few days, so I won’t lose anything important. If my laptop “wanders” off, I’ll live. And if you need your laptop for work travel, your employer will have to cover the loss if it is stolen. For my personal laptop, I’ve installed StompSoft’s Digital Vault on the suggestion of a coworker. That way I can relax about all my passwords and important info being protected from prying eyes.

Joe August 23, 2006 5:04 PM

The agencies here are in PANIC!
And they are obsessed with Technology!

And that just doesn’t work. We will spend billions of dollars now to find a solution for detecting X, but once we reach that the terrorist will use Y, or Z, or A, B, C or a combination of all of the above instead!

The US agencies are looking for the BOMB but not for the BOMBER!

The only combination that works in this field is when you mix up Technology with Human Factor. We need to start training selectors in the airport in identifying suspicious behaviour. Random security is worthless! You have to be able to identify the possible terrorist. And believe me, no matter how ideologically brainwashed you are or how convicted you are to your religion, before dying or killing people get nervous. And we must be able to identify this.

Only then will we be SAFER. Yep, not 100% safe, nor 90% safe like the Israelis, for that we also need Human Intelligence in the process involved in identifying, recruiting, training, and sending a Bomber.

But with that mixture of Technology and Human Factor we will be safer…and the travelers will not pay the price everytime a new type of explosive or tactic is tested by the terrorists causing the system to PANIC.

In the meantime, though… it looks like we are going to have to take our security and the security of our loved ones in our own hands. There are many things one can do in order to increase one’s safety should something occur. An excellent source for this can be found at

goat killa August 29, 2006 12:32 AM

I truly think they should improve air port seciurty because i no like blow up when i flying on one plane

tigin December 19, 2006 8:30 AM

Read at your own peril. I am revealing the toothpaste attack.

I have recently graduated from a masters program in computer science with a concentration in security. It was quite a shock to realize that the real world of security is so much different from what I learned in school, where all we worried about when it came to security was algebraic attacks and differential/linear cryptanalysis and such. Little did I know that we lived in a world where toothpaste terrorized the skies.

I was flying to Seattle the other day when I was pulled over by a screener at the Rochester airport. I am used to this, since I am from an Eastern European country and have a slightly Middle Eastern-looking face, so I am a threat to national security by default. The screener searched my bag and revealed to me the high-tech terror equipment that I was unknowingly carrying: one bottle of spring water, deodorant, after shave and (hold your breath) toothpaste (all of which, by the way, you can always buy after you get past screening). It was revealed to me that any liquid weighing more than 3.4oz was to be confiscated for the good of the nation (I think the value 3.4 is chosen to confuse terrorists). My toothpaste clearly said 4oz. I pointed out, however, that my toothpaste was more than half used, and given that the weight of the actual toothpaste was 69% of the net weight (which I totally made up on the spot), the current weight of my toothpaste was really less than 2.62oz (how about that for a counter attack), which could not possibly threaten the security of the United States of America. These astonishing calculations were too much for my screener to handle, and a supervisor was called. Apparently, I had argued my point well and was allowed to have my toothpaste on the grounds that the supervisor was “feeling generous today”. The likes of water, deodorant and after shave were, however, out of the question. I bid them farewell, thanked my screeners graciously and over-enthusiastically for granting me my toothpaste and walked into the terminal.

It makes you think.

On my way to Seattle, it suddenly occurred to me. Those screeners knew it all along. It was so simple, it was brilliant. The toothpaste attack… why didn’t I think of it before? Hereby I declare the 3 steps needed to conquer the world:

1 – Put some toothpaste on your toothbrush.
2 – Brush your teeth.
3 – Hack into the CIA machines and do bad stuff.

This may sound too technical if you are not really into security, but believe me, as long as we have those hard-working, self-sacrificing screeners with such standards as 3.4oz, we are safe from the evil toothpaste of doom.

sandeep February 2, 2007 4:39 AM

i wnt to work with u . i already with indian air lines IGI air port india delhi as security sub assitant i do scneering of pax baggies .

Bertrand Ruhle February 4, 2007 10:20 AM

I have invented A new way to place the baggage on the planes which took me 4 years to compleat. Withthis idea it would change the way the security is done oin the airport,s I The coustimer could bring his baggage at the airport 15 minutes and with this device dosen have to have A security person to check the baggage. The comesatomer just have to put the baggage on the strap and it would go to the airplane without checking the baggage.2 The airlines would never late for A flite . 3 This idea couldsave millions of dollars in fuel4. 4The security if the pilot and the crew would have no stress with this idea that the baggage are safe from any harizard meterial abord the plane. 5A treat that there is A bonb abord The baggage by someone calling to the aorport is unlikely with this idea
The only security people needed in the airport is to check the passanger but not the baggage.
I can assure that with this idea the treat of A bonb abord the airplane in the baggage would not happened.

Thank you for reading my letter

Sam April 7, 2007 2:26 PM

Hi !!
Please advise when an external hard drive is taken as carry on baggage…..Is it safe as far as no data is erased while going thru the security screening, etc ??
Thank u.

Giorgio April 23, 2007 5:41 AM

About airport security checks and shifting attention.

Las Vegas airport, weekend, about 911 people lined-up for the security check to enter the gates area.

Security officers shouting angry; remove liquids, laptops or you will wait more…

As the waiting gets really long and annoying I talk to someone in the line:

Me: “Hell, I hope we will make it quick”

Someone: “Mr. It’s better to wait than being blown up in an airplane”

Me: “Listen, we are in this moment in the least secure area possible, imagine if someone blows [something] up in this crowd, just imagine… Not possible to see if any bag is left alone (everyone busy with himself), not possible to see who left it (to crowdy)”

You could ‘smell’ the distress of the people who heard this comment.

Entering the airport hall there is no check at all. It would be very very easy to pose a 100 pound bomb in the overly crowded waiting lines
and get hundreds of peoples injured, killed.

Anonymous June 13, 2007 9:09 PM

The purpose of these measures are not the security of the airplanes themselves. Preventing hijackings is about securing the pilots, not disarming the passengers. Airplanes are among the worst imaginable targets for bombings. The purpose of these security measures is to acclimate the populace to random search. The airports are a testing ground for random search technologies and techniques–particularly the human techniques necessary to guarantee compliance. Will people take off their shoes for no reason? Will people allow their naked bodies to be examined by strangers through x-ray machines? The airlines will find out, and do their part to create a docile, easily managed population. In the long run, this will make the world safer for governments everywhere.

Iwan Evans August 28, 2007 11:08 AM

It is slightly annoying. I had to take my laptop out of bag and My Heelys off. But they only ask one in every three people to take their shoes off, there could be a shoe bomber on the plane! Thank you for reading..

Anonymous December 19, 2007 12:00 PM

I’ve had to go through airport security to go ona missions trip and & they made my entire group take off shoes, take EVERYTHING out of bags, including laptops its insane!!

christopher February 4, 2008 6:30 PM

This is a very good site to get information on because it gives a lot of detail. keep doing what you do because it will help people in the U.S.A. and I was at the airport a we brought a to water gun and they let us right by.We couldent believe it because that coud have a real gun! Like i said keep finding info on the TSA.hope you have a good day!


Dave B. June 2, 2008 3:35 PM

“i don’t ever remember reading about any technology that could detect karate skills in a person……….”

You don’t have to, if you can detect people that intend to use whatever skills that they have available to them to cause harm. Hence the questioning by trained professionals.

@Real One
While I respect that you’ve posted here, I find your reasoning peculiar.

You have to understand that the whole process of going through an airport is profoundly stressful, people have usually not slept well, or travelled a lot and are being kept in confined spaces with many people and few explanations of what is happening. This is not conducive to an even temper or even rational behaviour.

So, while I sympathise, because dealing with the public is never easy, perhaps you would be better at your job if you actually showed a little sympathy and respect to the people you are trying to protect.

I do however agree that, just because you disagree with the procedure, it doesn’t give you a license to be an arsehole.

Security Expert August 23, 2008 11:56 PM

Just came back from a cruise. Very professional. No shake-downs for carry-ons or requests to remove clothing. Left from nearby port, no airports, of course, since the downfall into paranoid searching of personal property and use of x-ray machines, etc. by the Government and Texas along with Airline Company support makes it mentally disturbed to fly anymore. The Government and Airline Companies, the Courts and Congress should be ashamed of themselves for the situation at the airports.

curious... September 12, 2008 8:29 PM

I was wondering whether anyone knows what the official criteria is for “randomly selecting” passengers for extra / more thorough searches? I travelled down to Ontario California from Victoria BC this week on business (via Seattle in both directions), and although on the way down to Ontario I wasn’t given any extra attention, on the way back yeaterday I was given a more thorough inspection at Ontario airport and at Seatac airport as well… I imagine there is a certain amount of racial profiling going on, but I’m curious as to what other criteria might be looked for…

Bruce November 2, 2008 6:53 AM

Recently a friend of mine came home (Rochester, NY) directly from US Army Recruit Training in Ft. Knox, KY. On arrival at the airport security check-point he was STRIPPED Searched btw: he was in UNIFORM with a valid Armed Forces Identification Card. They even “sniffed” him for High Explosives due to the Firing Range Residue on his boots. As far as I am concerned, this is unthinkably idiotic and outright STUPID behavior on the behalf of the TSA. Who in the He*l do they think they are ? Enough is ENOUGH !

Marc DV November 5, 2008 5:37 PM

Re-entering the US at Detroit, I was selected for the dreaded secondary screening. I was returning from my sister’s funeral in UK. Apart from a long wait, an in depth interrogation and being (illegally) asked for my social security number, I noticed that the immigration staff were all armed! Why? They only ever meet people who have been through at least one security screening. Taxes have now to pay for guns and training. What a farce! Plus the TSA is still foot-dragging over allowing pilots to be armed. I’d rather chance meeting Al Qaeda!

Security Expert December 13, 2008 3:38 AM

What we have here is a growing police state which is starting at the airports and must be prevented from entering the cities and other forms of ground transportation. We can only hope that the new admininistration will act to stop this harassment of passengers which amounts to the frisking in a police arrest.
The Congress, Courts and Airline companies must turn around the paranoid propensity to search the average citizen’s belongings which is now and always has been illegal. There are no grounds for reasonable suspicion of everyone, or for the abnormal “security”
which is going on for political reasons.

Emil Roy December 11, 2009 2:21 PM

Airport security should screen people not objects, maybe by linking passport info to retinal scans or fingerprints. We need a lobbying group to press Congress to reform the TSA.

Ramesh January 20, 2010 3:09 AM

i am Lawyer have a practice seven year and i am Karate Black Belt 3rd Dan have exprience 21 year in martial Feild. if any vacancy for me plz. inform.

Achmead March 24, 2010 8:11 PM

im doing a report on airport security before and after 9-11 if u have any good informational links pease comment!!!

Matthew March 22, 2012 5:10 AM


A close friend of mine had her bag searched in a German airport, she was then instructed to put on a gell that identifies drug usage. She was then subjected to a strip search by several female customs officials and had to undergo an internal inspection. Following this she was released without charge.

Do you have any information about the correct procedure to be followed in these circumstancies?

Chip April 28, 2015 11:02 AM

Spot on. (And well covered in Professor John Mueller’s “Overblown” book.) Personal example: Going through TSA security at BTV, where they had just installed one of the high tech screening machines, the machine alarmed. I was wanded and patted down with nothing found. TSA insisted I MUST have had something in my pocket. Turning it inside out we found a small bit of pocket lint. Only after arriving at my destination did I discover that my large Swiss Army knife with a dozen various types of blades accidentally left in my carry-on sailed right through the X-ray machine without any problem. So much for security.

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