Airport Security – The Insecurity of Inconsistency

Unless you are a diplomat, ‘hip-hop terrorist’ or celebrity diva airports are to be avoided, a necessary evil of travelling. In fact judging by recent media reports even the latter do not relish the prospect of being whisked through airport security while the rest of us are forced to wait in line, poor darlings.

Whether regular travellers or infrequent fliers it is likely that the least enjoyable part for many of us is the airport. With a few notable exceptions, there is not a great deal to keep us entertained in the typical terminal. Shopping in over priced ‘tax free’ outlets, often average restaurants though the coffee can sometimes be more than passable, little of this seems especially tempting.

Waiting, along with airport security the unpleasant side of travelling on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

It’s a waiting game

“it can be vary between tortuous and downright unpleasant”

Since 9/11 however the greatest bugbear for the majority of us has been airport security. Long queues at passport control, the facts and fallacies of transporting liquids and the possible risks of full body scanners can all make the journey less of a pleasure than it should be.

Travelling into the United States in particular can be tedious even for residents, but for those of not from ‘Land of the Free’ it can vary between tortuous and downright unpleasant. There are many stories of people taking as long as several hours to pass through the full security process and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has received a great deal of criticism in recent years.

Some consider it a knee-jerk reaction however it is hard to dismiss the images of 9/11 and ultimately these security measures are in place to protect us all. Nobody wishes to see a repeat of similar horrific scenes to those of that day. However although always keen to return to America, the prospect of a drawn out and generally unpleasant entry system does fill me with loathing.

Waiting for arriving friends and family passing through airport security at Manchester on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Waiting for arrivals

My own experiences of passing through airport security however have led me to come to one overriding conclusion; it is totally inconsistent.

My carryon luggage is completely consistent; a backpack in which every item is always the same, a laptop,  camera, lenses, a water bottle, first aid kit, hard drives, spare clothing and a few other items. The items that appear ‘suspect’ during the scanning process at security gates however is different in every airport.

The water bottle is made of aluminium; despite always being empty and separated when scanned Manchester regularly send it through twice. This is my local airport which I fly from more than any other and yet this is the only object ever chosen there for additional attention. Just sealed my fate next flight of course!

When leaving Barcelona recently the security personnel wanted to check the camera and the lenses explaining that due the density of the items they were difficult to scan. I mentioned it was the first time they had been checked in this manner, the reply “that is because we are doing it properly!”

The obvious insinuation here is that other airports do not!

Flying recently from Zurich an attendant asked me about a sharp object in my pack, I could not think what it possibly was. After emptying the pack the culprit was discovered, scissors in the first aid kit. I had forgotten all about them, never being asked about them before, despite frequent flights. However then after checking them they were returned and allowed back into my pack. Obviously not considered a risk, maybe this explains why other airports ignored them?

Zurich airport railway station in Switzerland on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

Waiting at the airport station in Zurich

Athens is a particularly time consuming passage, with the initial security personnel asking a great deal of questions and requiring the pack to be almost emptied prior to scanning. However it did mean that there was not a single item that requires any further query or scan.

These are just a selection of the inconsistencies which have been experienced. There are more but think the point has been made sufficiently.

This inconsistency is also evident in what the security personnel and their technology require to be removed from pockets and person. Some airports require every item to be emptied out of pockets, wallets, cash and shoes even need to be removed, but at other airports thisis not necesary.

“the measures are not effective?”

This poses two distinct questions for me; are the reasons for these inconsistencies because the security measures we are being subjected to are not really necessary or more worryingly the measures are not effective? Surely if an item is of concern to one authority and is picked up as a potential hazard by one screening process it should be the same with all?

It may simply be that the more modern airports have better scanning procedures but I think it is safe to assume that Manchester and Zurich will have the latest technology.

I understand the necessity of routine and consistency in the security process, they prevent mistakes occurring due to missing out procedures.

The bottom line for me is that I accept that we do need to give up a little of the convenience of flying to ensure it is safe. Security measures are necessary but we should be able to expect a degree of consistency in the treatment and measures that we are subjected to at international airports.

Crowded airport lounge of Manchester on Mallory on Travel, adventure, adventure travel, photography

“We apologise your flight is delayed”

It would be useful to hear what an employee of the airport security has to say, maybe explain some of the reasons for these inconsistencies. In the end I think some understanding goes a long way towards acceptance.

Do any of you have any particular experiences to share, good or bad, gross inconsistencies or draconian security measures that maybe shocked or left you feeling like your rights had been abused? I would appreciate hearing them.

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Comments 8

  1. The World of Deej

    It’s funny your example in Barcelona. On my last trip there we had arrived by train from Paris. When we started to fly out the security agent questioned why my passport wasn’t stamped upon arrival. I explained we arrived in Paris and he said “Oh you came from France? I should have known” and rolled his eyes and handed me back the passport. The insinuation was that the French have no clue when it comes to security…

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      Thanks for adding your anecdote Deej pardon me if I don’t comment on that directly as might offend every French reader I have, all one of them 😉

  2. Kamal

    Predictability is a weakness which terrorists exploit. If you eliminate all inconsistencies, then you become predictable. There will never be perfect security, so we must also rely on the gut-feel and quick-wittedness of security personnel to spot and evaluate dangers. As long as security procedures are learning and adapting, let’s see some, not all, inconsistencies as good…

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      I am sorry Kamal but I cannot totally agree with you predictability of routine as in routes taken to work, time leaving, same mode of transportation etc are all aids to potential terrorists singling out a target to attack. However risk factors and potential hazards are not inconsistent, if it is a risk at one airport it is a risk everywhere, so if an item is picked up by the quick witted screen operative for checking in one airport it should be the same at all. Are security measures really learning and adapting, are liquids genuinely the risk factor being stated, I would suggest not knowing more than a little about such materials. If this is the case why do airport security still insist on the strict measures they enforce, that is not learning and adapting?

  3. Rob

    Great post Iain.

    The reason of ‘security’ is used far often to enforce stupid, pointless rules. A few years ago at Copenhagen, I had to check in a 1 litre clear bottle of vodka (in the shape of a gun) because “someone may think it is a real gun”.

    I’ve heard of friends having to surrender bottles of spirits bought at one airport when in transit at another and the examples go on and on.

    Now, I keep everything in hand luggage to a minimum and try to wear clothes without any metal bits etc

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      Thanks for sharing those experiences Rob. It is a damned we really have to think quite so carefully about what we carryon and even wear when travelling however. Whilst security is obviously really important so are basic rights and common sense.

  4. Alouise

    I worked for airport security for five years, from 2003 to 2008. I can tell you, from personal experience that there is inconsistency. Unlike what the public might believe there isn’t a magical alarm that comes up each time a prohibited item appears on the x-ray screen. It’s up to each security officer to review the x-ray and make sure that there isn’t something that shouldn’t be there. Since security relies on people, and people are far from perfect, security will not be perfect, and it will be inconsistent. I know that’s probably not the answer people want to hear, but it’s the truth. There were coworkers of mine that were great at spotting prohibited items. Then there were coworkers who would look at an empty coat and tell me, “I think there might be a knife in there.” When it comes to security I was taught, “when in doubt check it out.” So if a security officer thinks there might be a remote possibility of something being a prohibited item they’ll get the bag or item looked at.

    There are inconsistencies between security in different countries, because no two countries have the exact same security rules, and no two countries train their security personnel in the same way. There’s also difference between what preboard screening security will be concerned about, and what security in customs and immigration will be concerned about. I worked in Canada and there were certain items that weren’t allowed to fly in US airspace, but were fine to fly in domestic airspace. I understand that this inconsistency in frustrating for passengers, but it probably won’t go way unless every country in the entire world decides to work on implementing a universal security program, and I can’t see that happening. And I can say it’s just as frustrating for security when people directly complain to them about how their pocketknife got through in Las Vegas, so why can’t it fly here?

    There’s also inconsistencies between different sectors within an airport. There were many times someone would come through with some obscure item that was a prohibited item, but they were told by their airline that the item would be okay to go through. Of course Airline personnel may get told some of the items that can’t go through security, but they may not know about every item. They’re not trained to do security so it’s not fair to expect them to know all the answers.

    There’s very much an us vs. them attitude when it comes to security and passengers, and vice versa. It’s easy to say that security is stupid, and no one knows what they’re doing, but it isn’t a realistic attitude and it’s certainly not 100% correct. I’m not trying to paint security with some glowing brushstroke. Not every security officer is going to be good at their job, but then again not every cop is good at their job, not every teacher will be good at their job. There are poor workers in every industry. There are corrupt workers in every industry. There are inconsistencies in every industry as well. I’ve seen the inconsistencies that there are in security, and it’s just as frustrating for the people working there as it is for the passengers. Working for security was the worst job I’ve ever had and one reason for that is because the lack of communication within the industry which turned into inconsistencies and other problems. I don’t know if things will get better, but everyone needs to realize that this is isn’t a perfect system. No human based institution will be perfect, because everyone’s idea of perfect is different. It’s only when we deal with the reality of the situation, rather than some pipe dream of what security should be, can we take steps to make security better. It can be better, but it can’t be perfect.

    1. Post
      Author
      Iain

      Thank you Alouise for taking the time to post a very detailed explanation of the reasons that we have so many of these inconsistencies in airport security. As I mentioned having some understanding often goes a long way towards acceptance,and do not believe anybody really wants to dispense with it, it would be useful to see some improvement in standarising what a really considered genuine hazards througout the World.

      I also accept that this is probably a long way off and is actually never likely to improve to any great degree. I understand it cannot be a pleasant job and we may be should be more tolerant but the same is also true in reverse as often a bad experience at an airport can make or break a family holiday.

      Thank you again for taking the time to clarify some of the procedures and reasons for the inconsistency.

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