A Heathrow Airport Story about Trousers

Usually I don’t bother posting random stories about dumb or inconsistent airport security measures. But this one is particularly interesting:

“Sir, your trousers.”


“Sir, please take your trousers off.”

A pause.



The security official clearly was not expecting that response.

He begins to look like he doesn’t know what to do, bless him.

“You have no power to require me to do that. You also haven’t also given any good reason. I am sure any genuine security concerns you have can be addressed in other ways. You do not need to invade my privacy in this manner.”

A pause.

“I think you probably need to get your manager, don’t you?” I am trying to be helpful.

As I said in my Economist essay, “At this point, we don’t trust America’s TSA, Britain’s Department for Transport, or airport security in general.” We don’t trust that, when they tell us to do something and claim it’s essential for security, they’re tellling the truth.

Posted on April 11, 2012 at 9:57 AM32 Comments


anymouse April 11, 2012 10:25 AM

This is because known others have become the stranger danger we have all been programmed and fear mongered into surrendering liberty, privacy, dignity and respect to gain pseudo security aka security theatere.

VT April 11, 2012 10:31 AM

Hello Bruce,

Someday will you share with us what are the measures they took to discourage you from being present during the TSA effectiveness hearing?

I am sure one could make a good movie out of it 🙂

Clive Robinson April 11, 2012 10:34 AM


Why do I smell not a rat, but a plasticien dog and bloke from “hup Narff” with a liking for cheese and mechanical trousers, all made by Ardman 😉

Bruce Schneier April 11, 2012 10:38 AM

“Someday will you share with us what are the measures they took to discourage you from being present during the TSA effectiveness hearing?”

It was nothing complex. They claimed that, because I am a plaintiff in the EPIC vs. TSA lawsuit about full-body scanners, it would be inappropriate for us to testify at the same time. The committee bought the argument, and elected to uninvite me rather than uninvite the TSA.

yip April 11, 2012 10:38 AM

What are the chances the publication date (Apr 1) of this story is significant?

It apparently got published earlier on another blog

| (Originally on my old Jack of Kent site here.)

| Sunday, 13 February 2011

Danny Moules April 11, 2012 10:46 AM

“What are the chances the publication date (Apr 1) of this story is significant?”

Very little given it was published a long time ago on his blog. He’s also a lawyer, so it’s unlikely he’s going to take an unnecessary risk without an appropriate disclaimer.

David Allen Green (Jack of Kent) April 11, 2012 11:02 AM

I am the author of the post, and it is a faithful account of what happened to me when I flew from Heathrow to a middle eastern country early last year.

The security officer in question was employed by the airline, not the airport.

Petréa Mitchell April 11, 2012 11:26 AM

That exchange was so absurd, my brain started filling in the voice of Hercules Grytpype-Thynne for the supervisor at some point as I was reading through it.

Ross Patterson April 11, 2012 11:42 AM

Perhaps the weirdest part of the exchange is that, although the airline “ha[d] concerns” about his bag, it was allowed on the plane – just not in his possession. Here in the USA, if your bag gets separated from you, someone will call the Bag Destruction Police.

Lurker April 11, 2012 11:46 AM

That… is inane, asinine, and several other wonderful but obscure words mostly meaning “stupid”.

Having read the whole blog post, the excerpt doesn’t do it justice. It’s not even security theater in this case, the actions are so ridiculous that a three year old could tell it doesn’t make you any safer.

Anirban April 11, 2012 11:46 AM

Is there any article which traces the history of airline security and how it got to where it is now?

tony gurnick April 11, 2012 12:05 PM

The solution is simple. Do not wear underwear when travelling through an airport. It probably more comfortable in any event.

uk visa April 11, 2012 12:28 PM

There are a few things that cause trouble when it comes to staffing the DoT and TSA:
1) intelligent people tend to avoid tedious and repetitive work
2) it takes very special people to look at virtually the same thing 100,000 times and then spot the anomaly
3) the occasional moron gets power mad; gets written about; results in us holding airport security about as highly as we do traffic wardens.
Solution/s – somehow these bodies need to present the people they serve with a more intelligent, respectful face… then they’ll get the respect they deserve.

Clive Robinson April 11, 2012 12:57 PM

@ David Allen Green,

You say from your post that it was the bag that was causing them “suspicion” and not it’s contents.

I’m curious… On the assumption (probably incorrect) that they did have genuine concerns (as opposed to picking on you as a “training excercise” because you were the end of the line).

It begs the question ‘what was it about your bag?’

Now I know that new bags (from their packing) and certain types of “tanned” leather products with certain types of finnish will test positive for nitrates.

I’m also aware that certain “faux leather” materials made of plastic or cloth will show an odd density etc when scanned.

And I’ve half joked on this blog that the welted seams (traditionaly made by sewing in a cord under the fabric) would be a place you could hide “Det Cord”.

So I’m just wondering what boxes it could have ticked for them…

NobodySpecial April 11, 2012 1:08 PM

Slightly Off-Topic.
News today that a departing Korean Airliner was diverted from Vancouver airport to a nearby Canadian Air Force base because of a phoned-in bomb threat.
Reasonable enough precaution, probably a hoax but better safe than sorry etc and you don’t want to circle 400tons of plane+fuel+possible bomb back over the city to land at YVR.

But – the plane was escorted by 2 US fighters! I’m sorry but exactly what was the point in that? There was no hijack, the crew reported nothing – just a call to the ticket agency. Still I suppose it gives them something to do

kris April 11, 2012 1:36 PM

the was the airline asking him for his trousers, manbag etc.

Private company, man. You want to fly with them, their rules, their screening. If you don’t like it, fly someone else.

Now, if this was the guberment doing this, I’d have another view – but it wasn’t the government.

moz April 11, 2012 1:47 PM

The last two lines of the story show exactly why the politicians are right and we are wrong.

chris April 11, 2012 2:45 PM

Bruce, my favorite story is still your anecdote about the two contact lens solution bottles, with your explanation:

“Two eyes”

being accepted as valid.

sirk April 11, 2012 2:54 PM

@kris: “Private company, man. You want to fly with them, their rules, their screening. If you don’t like it, fly someone else.”

And, the company advertised, in bold, clear lettering on all of their literature that the customer sees before buying their tickets, something similar to: “You will be required to remove your trousers before flying with us”, did they?

You sir, are a maroon. Back under the bridge with you! Or, we won’t send you any more nice billy goats.

No One April 11, 2012 3:54 PM

@kris, sirk: Moreso, I believe airlines (in the US at least) are common carriers and as such are more highly regulated in what they can and cannot demand of passengers.

pfogg April 11, 2012 10:10 PM

@Ross Patterson

Separating the guy from the bag would make sense if they couldn’t ‘clear’ the bag, but had strong reasons to believe that nothing present would operate as a weapon on its own (timer, remote-control, slow-release, etc.). Stowing it in business class makes sense if airline personnel are strict about keeping coach class passengers out of business class (for a business class passenger, you’d have to put the luggage into locked storage).

Also, as a standard procedure “put the bag over there” sounds comparatively innocuous, and policy might allow it to be overused.

Clive Robinson April 11, 2012 11:50 PM

@ NobbodySpecial,

But – the plane was escorted by 2 US fighters! I’m sorry but exactly what was the point in that?


First and importantly is “shepherding”, that is, if it is a bomb the plane needs to be taken via a minimum ground effect route. The pilots in their understandable desire to get the plane down as quickly as possible or for a number of other reasons might not stick to the chosen route.

Secondly if it is a bomb and it does explode, then they can report not just that it has gone off, they will be able to be a witness as to where the bomb exploded in the plane and also the external effects.

Thirdly if the plane does go down due to the bomb exploding they will be able to report as to where the wreckage has landed and the effects it is having so that first responders etc can be notified as to location and resources required.

Fourthly a bomb might not be “just on board” it might be there under the control of a human who wants to use it as leverage to get through the cockpit door. Whilst we accept that a person with a weapon of small size will almost certainly get restrained by other passengers who calculate the chances of survival as good, nobody knows about “certain death” weapons. Thus the plane might come under the control of an undesirable person.

And there are a number of other reasons that a few moments thought will give you.

Zaphod April 12, 2012 2:58 PM


Rings true. The eGates were closed [not that I’d use them] at LHR last week when I flew in.


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