Airline security that works

I just got back from a couple of weeks in Europe (London and Zurich). Security does seem to have stepped up a notch since the London bombings, but I didn’t notice anything overly obtrusive. (Then again, I wasn’t wearing a jacket and running for the Tube.) Security delays at Heathrow were uncharacteristically bad, although it did turn out I was in the trainee line at the security check — much to my frustration as my boarding time neared, the other lines were flowing through just fine.

One thing that did surprise me was the security process at Amsterdam’s Schipol airport (I had to change there to get from Zurich to Seattle). As I approached the gate for the Northwest flight, there was a line-up before you could get to the gate area. While you were waiting in line, a security officer wheeled up a laptop on a stand and scanned your passport. Then you had to wait for another officer to take you into the gate area.

But before you were allowed to proceed to the boarding area, they did a little interview with you. (There were at least a dozen interview areas — nothing more than wheeled podiums arranged in some clear space — and about as many interviewers, so this process was pretty quick.) The interviewer asked me about my itinerary on this trip, where I’d packed my luggage and where it had been on every step of the trip to the airport, what electronic devices I had in my baggage, where I lived and what I did, and so on. The interviewer did not seem to be a $5/hr flackey reading through a script — he genuinely seemed to be probing and investigating, albeit in a very polite way. I suspect the questions were dependent on your itinerary and passport scan. After a few minutes of this he checked with a supervisor, and I was then allowed to proceed. After a scan of my hand baggage through the X-ray, I was on my way.

What impressed me about this was how effective this process seemed. Everyone on the flight was interviewed — not a few random selectees — and the interview seemed meaningful. Much more focus was placed on intelligence (the interview) than on security (the X-ray scan almost seemed like a formality, and there were no pat-downs). I’m not one to get nervous on flights, but I did feel measurably safer having gone through that process. And isn’t that the point? I guess it must be expensive — let’s say 15 well-trained security staff for 2 hours of boarding — but it certainly felt worth it, and not obtrusive at all. It didn’t seem like they were doing it for all flights at Schipol — I suspect that flights to the US are singled out for this kind of operation.

Compare this with a totally bizarre security experience I had flying Baltimore to NYC about a month ago. Because we’d changed our tickets that day (to fly out of BWI instead of Reagan), we were automatically flagged by the airline for “special screening”. (If you ever see the code SSSS on your boarding pass — usually for last-minute changes, one-way tickets, or paying in cash — you’re about to get the special treatment too.) Everyone else went through the regular security line (ID checked and hand baggage X-rayed).

The first thing I saw when I got to the special screening line was your usual X-ray scanner. So I went ahead and did the usual things — take my laptop out of its bag, shoes off, you know the drill. As I put my belongings on the counter ready to be scanned, a gruff security officer told me “Put your shoes on.”. Err, ok. So I grab my shoes off the belt and put them back on.

Now the security guard points to me towards a machine that looks kinda like the Tardis. (See a picture of the Smiths Detection IonScan Sentinel II.) You step into the Tardis and the security guard pushes a button. The machine then blows air into your face (and over your whole body) for about 10 seconds. It’s kinda like standing in a strong wind. This was the exact point where the security officer decided to give me further instructions, but with all the wind blowing I could hear nothing and only see her lips moving. Anyway, the wind stopped, the machine beeped, and I was allowed to proceed.

Next, was your usual X-ray scanner for hand baggage and the personal X-ray machine you walk through. I took my stuff off the counter and put it on the belt of the bag scanner, and went to walk though the arch. Before I could, another security guard told me to take my shoes off and put them through the bag scanner as well. Protesting that I’d just been told to put my shoes on didn’t help. I meekly removed my shoes again, put them on the belt, and walked through the arch.

But it’s not over yet. Next, I had to sit down with a third security officer while he tested my hand baggage (laptop bag, overnight bag, and shoes) for explosives by wiping each of them in turn with a cloth and scanning it. This took about 5 minutes, giving me time to talk with the security guard (this guy was nice). I asked about the Tardis. He said it was a new high-tech explosive scanning machine. The TSA had bought 20 of them, and shipped them to 20 airports around the country. He said that when they got it, they didn’t really know what to do with it, so they stuck it in the special screening line.

So think about this for a moment. If you get send to the special screening line, you are checked for explosives THREE times — with the Tardis, with the regular X-ray/body-scan, and with the cloth test. Wouldn’t it be more effective to scan three times as many people? But no, that would make far too much sense. Much better just to make business travellers who change their tickets at the last minute take their shoes off, put them on again, take them off again, and put them on again in the name of trying to make people feel better while not actually making anyone measurably safer.

And consider the cost. The Tardis must costs at least in the 6 figures, and I wouldn’t be surprise if it was in the multi-millions. How many interviewers could they have trained for that kind of money that could have effectively screened for psychopaths, like they do at Schipol?

One thought on “Airline security that works”

  1. Hmm… the IonScan Sentinel II also scans for drugs… it’s so handy when our “Wars on” overlap. I wonder how many people had to be smoking pot at the concert you attended the night before for the thing to test positive for THC? That would, of course, be a bigger concern if they used them at Schipol!

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