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

Changes to airport security
Changes to flight security rules are going to keep lines long and painful.
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.

Your thoughts on "Changes to flight security rules"

  • Flights headed for Australia are also getting the extra security check at the gate. At least ours (ex Johannesburg) did. No liquids, so don't bother filling up your water bottle after you get through the first security check.

    on January 25, 2010 at 4:44 pm Reply
    • Yuck! Who were you flying with, Chris? Qantas? Do you know if it was the airline or airport authorities who enforced that?

      on January 25, 2010 at 4:49 pm Reply
  • What happens if you have to go to the bathroom when stuck in one of these lines?

    on January 25, 2010 at 8:41 pm Reply
  • Honestly, security issues can ruin any good trip.

    on January 25, 2010 at 2:53 pm Reply
  • Sue - most security areas have bathrooms. If you are travelling by yourself then you'll lose your place in the queue, but if travelling with others they might be able to save your spot.

    on January 27, 2010 at 1:02 pm Reply
  • We were flying SAA. It wasn't the airline enforcing that, it was The Rules Ex Australia. I don't think it's voluntary...

    on January 27, 2010 at 4:54 pm Reply
  • I am okay with increased security. It may be more time consuming and difficult, but I believe the ultimate goal is to protect me and others. However, I think tips are good for us to make the process more efficient. I am sometimes amazed at what people think is logical and then wonder why they are pulled aside. Good post guys.

    on February 9, 2010 at 3:37 am Reply
  • That issue about secondary security checks and no liquids never made any sense to me. After all, the liquids you have at that point were bought in the sterile, air side, area and are perfectly safe. Had a problem with this on a flight to the US shortly after the liquid bomber scare, and was a royal pain. Hopefully the security theater we're seeing now will subside, but I'm not holding out any great hope...

    on February 12, 2010 at 4:20 am Reply
  • The entire security hassle is getting way out of hand. There really needs to be a full overhaul of how airport security is handled, at least in the US. The delays are getting ridiculous, if you look at Israel, passengers refuse to wait more than 30 minutes to be all the way through security, and overall Israel has greater security threats than the United States. The US could take some great hints from Israel, but it's never going to happen as long as people just accept insane delays in the name of mostly ineffective security. Time online had a great article regarding the US-Israeli difference in security approaches a month or two ago as well.

    on February 16, 2010 at 5:43 am Reply
  • Sadly, this appears to be a society of mistrust and increasing fear of safety. The 9/11 and other bombings have contributed in most countries to the lack of trust and already embedded fear of fellow men. So in answer to this article, it is necessary as although we complain we the travelers demand to be safe. SO next time you are cued in a long line of passengers who are complaining, gently remind them that this is a necessary part of travel in todays climate.

    on September 6, 2010 at 3:18 am Reply

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