Our most frequent flyer, Rob, shows us how to navigate flight security hassles since the underpants bomber incident.
Flight security systems all over the world have a common core aim — to keep flights safe for passengers, for crew and (since 9/11) for those on the ground. Despite this common aim, and the attempts of some countries’ security organisations (notably the TSA in the USA), there is a wide disparity on how security is applied.
Some of the main security changes since the underpants bomber incident are outlined below. There’s also some advice on how to reduce the hassles of flight security garnered from the experience of over a thousand flights including over a dozen since Christmas 2009.
Changes in security
Rules are changing almost daily, however at the time of writing there have been two main changes which seem likely to remain.
The first change is that international passengers flying to the USA are getting a pat-down and inspection of carry-on luggage at the gate. In some places this is being taken very seriously with a thorough check, but in many places the checks are cursory as people don’t think it contributes much to safety. It is compulsory for certain countries and passengers but otherwise random.
The second change is that the USA is increasing the number of air marshalls on flights to, from and within their country. Action by passengers, whether security personnel or other flyers (e.g. Jasper Schuringa on December 25th) is now seen as the most effective improvement in flight security since 9/11 (and including United flight 93 on 9/11).
It is not clear if a third significant change, the increased rollout of the nude imaging screening machines, will be temporary or permanent. There are a number of concerns that have not yet been adequately resolved — protection of children being one. While children could be exempted from using these machines this opens a big security loophole.
It is also likely that moves announced in 2009 to remove the liquids carry-on restrictions will be quietly dropped for political reasons.
Tips for flyers
No matter how well-prepared a traveller is before a trip, there is a chance that security rules will change at the last minute or during travel. For example, for three days over Christmas 2009 those flying from other countries to the USA were not allowed out of their seats for the last hour of the flight. Some airlines and authorities imposed extra carry-on restrictions — passengers were only allowed one bag or item, or none if flying from Canada to the USA. Some people flying in August 2006 found they were unable to carry on any bags in the aftermath of the liquid bomb attempt.
There are things passengers can do to reduce the hassle:
- Before heading to the airport, check the rules posted on the airline’s website.
- If a trip involves multiple airlines or countries, prepare for the lowest common denominator. For example if one country allows liquids to be carried on but another doesn’t, then don’t bring liquids.
- Reduce the amount of baggage being carried on board, and especially the items in your pockets. Fewer items means it’s easier to pass through security — quicker bag checks, less time needed to empty pockets at the metal detector. Some travellers go further and also wear shoes that are easily removed and belts with small buckles so that they don’t trigger the metal detector.
- Allow more time between connecting flights and before departure.
- At some airports, passengers with elite frequent flyer status or who are flying first/business class can use priority security lanes.
- If you’ll have trouble standing in a queue for an extended period of time then arrange with your airline in advance for wheelchair assistance.
- Pick the fast-moving security lines — normally the ones filled with business travellers move fastest.
How do you feel about the latest security changes? Please share any tips you have on navigating flight security more easily.