Studying Airport Security

Alan A. Kirschenbaum, Michele Mariani, Coen Van Gulijk, Sharon Lubasz, Carmit Rapaport, and Hinke Andriessen, "Airport Security: An Ethnographic Study," Journal of Air Transport Management, 18 (January 2012): 68-73 (full article is behind a paywall).

Abstract: This paper employs a behavioral science perspective of airport security to, examine security related decision behaviors using exploratory ethnographic observations. Sampling employees from a broad spectrum of departments and occupations in several major airports across Europe, over 700 descriptive items are transcribed into story scripts that are analyzed. The results demonstrate that both formal and informal behavioral factors are present when security decisions are made. The repetitive patterns of behavior allowed us to develop a generic model applicable to a wide range of security related situations. What the descriptions suggest is that even within the formal regulatory administrative framework of airports, actual real-time security behaviors may deviate from rules and regulations to adapt to local situations.

Posted on December 30, 2011 at 6:11 AM • 15 Comments


echowitDecember 30, 2011 8:21 AM

Especially one that probably reaches the same conclusion that most behavioral
?science? studies reach. Humans, doing human things, will probably behave in a very human way.


GeorgeDecember 30, 2011 11:46 AM

"...actual real-time security behaviors may deviate from rules and regulations to adapt to local situations. "

Yes, but as Blogger Bob would say, any observed "deviations" are part of a meticulously planned Security Strategy of Unpredictability. The Strategy regularly fools travelers, who ignorantly view it as either incompetence or arrogance. And here it fools academics who should know better. That only proves the efficacy of the Strategy. If innocent travelers and academics are dazed and confused, it's an inescapable conclusion that it effectively deters terrorists. Just one more study that conclusively proves that the TSA is an Impenetrable Maginot Line Against Terrorism!

Miss Dee MeanorDecember 30, 2011 1:41 PM

And in the Journal of Economics: "A Cross-sectional Study on University Academics Desperate for Research Funding Presenting Obvious Results Using Overcomplicated Language in a Journal that Nobody Reads and that Libraries for Some Reason Buy at Inflated Prices"

I am thinking of setting up a "peer-reviewed" journal and paying / bribing professors to convince their university libraries to buy a subscription for $2000 a year. Remember: If it is expensive, it must be high quality!

Dave C.December 30, 2011 3:52 PM

@ Hugo, Miss Dee Meanor

I Agree. I think it is disgraceful to charge for access to an academic paper. Such reserch should be freely available to whoever wants to read it. Knowledge should be not be hidden from people and we should not have to pay anything for it.

SamDecember 30, 2011 5:35 PM

Capitalism at its best ! You mean that charging money for a paper that will only tell you what we have known for 1000 + years, that humans kill,, is not worth the bucks ? You don't say!! Hey guys, give him a break, its a bad economy he needs the cash. MUUHHAHA..

meDecember 31, 2011 8:57 AM

"...Humans, doing human things, will probably behave in a very human way..."


It is a bad economy and humans will do human things. That's one reason I'm very pensive about the idea of prison building and supervision being a private venture. But, wrong thread...

"Such reserch should be freely available to whoever wants to read it. Knowledge should be not be hidden from people and we should not have to pay anything for it."

You sound like Mr.Luther. So, not a fan of illuminated texts?

I think some knowledge should be sold and it's up to the author(s) to determine the price and market ( unless all knowledge is the same, and, you know..maybe not...). Me, I prefer a lifetime service of car details and free subs as payment.

MarkusDecember 31, 2011 9:09 AM

"In addition, we find that most threats are simply ignored by security employees under the assumption that they are false alarms, ..."

So many examples of broken security.. In a way brilliant stuff, just 5 pages of content though which was bit depressing. Oh well, thank $DEITY for university access :-p

FredJanuary 2, 2012 4:59 AM

Not sure about the Israel & Italy institutions, but the dutch university is state sponsored. As a dutch citizen I feel I should have access to the results...

MattJanuary 2, 2012 5:04 PM

Speaking of airport security, does anyone know...

For people who go through the x-ray scanner, is the ID of the person being scanned known by the operator of the scanner at or before the time of scanning?

Why do I ask? Just saw this* news article and it occurred to me that over-exposing a regime's political opponents during security scans which utilize (or could be adapted to utilize) harmful emissions--x-ray or retinal scans for example--would be an excellent and very subtle way to subvert opposition: few things are as effective as cancer or failing eyesight to inhibit productivity.

Paranoid? Possibly, but given the stakes, the relative ease of implementation, and humanity's history of abuse of government power, I would be astonished if it hadn't at least occurred to them and it's certainly well within the moral limits of any regime can execute its own citizens without trial, or dismiss waterboarding as not torture.


bf skinnerJanuary 4, 2012 7:16 AM

Just cleared security at Dulles. Did not realize the scanners require everything out of your pockets. Even wallets. What is the incidence of theft at the check point?

mooJanuary 6, 2012 6:11 PM

@ bf skinner:
While flying home after Christmas here in Canada (a domestic flight) I placed all of my wallet and keys and laptop into the same large plastic bin, with the wallet and keys next to, but separated from, my laptop. The screener then picked up just the wallet and *placed it underneath my laptop case in a different bin*. No explanation was offered, and I didn't ask for one.. but I did watch anxiously from the other side of the xray scanner to make sure nobody was futzing with my wallet while I waited for the bins to come through the scanner.

Its pretty annoying to be separated from my belongings, and ordered through the body scanner immediately while the xray belt advances, then backs up, then advances again, etc. as the operator examines the three bags in front of mine. I usually stall as long as I can before walking through the body scanner, so my belongings are out of sight for as short a time as possible. It still causes me some anxiety, every single time.

RogerJanuary 7, 2012 5:45 PM

@bf skinner, moo:
Supposedly there was a rash of laptop thefts at checkpoints about 6 or 7 years ago, but I haven't heard anything like that for years.

I fly quite a bit. I generally take everything out of my pockets and lock it in my laptop bag / briefcase / knapsack, before even approaching the checkpoint. This has several advantages:
1. Less chance for some hypothetical desperado to see where you put your valuables;
2. Instead of being loose in a tray, your valuables are locked in a bag which is large and distinctive enough to be difficult to steal discreetly; and most importantly
3. Unless you get blocked by a disorganised person in front of you, you can just breeze right through without queuing. Sometimes if there is a real muddle-head in the way, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, you can just step around them and go through (the guards don't seem to mind this, although bizarrely the roadblocker often complains, even though you aren't costing him anything at all.)

Additionally, if I am carrying a laptop I have it in its bag but wrapped in an additional plastic shopping bag. I think this gives a little extra protection from dust and spilled liquids whilst travelling, but it also camouflages it a little at those airports that make you take it out of its bag for the scanner. (I've never encountered anywhere that was unhappy about having it wrapped in a plastic bag.)

moo's experience with his wallet being moved is not surprising. Some airports restrict what else is allowed in the tray with the laptop, in order to minimise visual clutter for the operator. It seems to be best to put it in its own tray. On the other hand, he may just have been looking out for you by putting your wallet out of plain sight.

walte February 17, 2012 11:19 AM

Recently I travelled through one of Indian airport (Mumbai airport), I was surprised to see laptops tray customized to prevent any sort of loss of valuables from X ray point. The tray I was given given had a simple locking mechanism. I locked my PAd,wallet etc; had the key till security check was done and retrieved may items thereafter. The whole process was innovative, simple and user friendly; the Indian way of solving problem .

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