Airport security — what works, and what does not?

With so much talk about new explosive detection equipment and the upcoming full body scanners, we decided to look into some of the current technology in place at airports around the world. What works, and what does not?

Will the future of airport security involve everyone stripping down to their underpants? Or will technology evolve to the point where computers can detect terrorists from a distance?

Metal detector

The airport metal detector is a piece of equipment that works absolutely perfectly – for finding metal. It won’t detect explosives, ceramic knives or anything else that is not metallic. And it isn’t designed for that – its sole purpose is to detect metal objects.

Anyone who has left their belt on, or had some loose change will know how sensitive these things are.

Why they don’t always work: Can only detect metal. Can’t sense explosives, ceramic blades or liquids.

The x-ray machine

At the airport, baggage is checked at two places – at the security checkpoint, and at the checked bag drop-off. These machines are pretty good. But they have a fatal flaw – they can’t detect anything without the presence of a human operator. And lets be honest – someone that has to sit in front of a monitor looking at bags move past them will never reach a 100% accuracy. Things will slip through the cracks.

Why they don’t always work: The human element is the weak spot. Unable to “sniff” for explosives.

Passenger puffer machine

The “puffer machine” was supposed to be the ultimate in airport security. You step into the machine, it blows puffs of air on you, and “smells” for explosives. It all sounds like the perfect solution. These machines were in place at several airports on a trial basis before they were all removed due to “unforeseen technical problems”.

Millions were invested in the devices, which are now probably collecting dust in a storage facility. High profile research labs are still working on better solutions, and there are several very promising technologies in the very early stages of development. Sadly, without some really serious government money, those machines won’t be at your local airport any time soon.

Why they don’t always work:
Citing “technical difficulties”, they are no longer in use at US airports.

Swab explosives detector

Anyone who has been pulled aside for a secondary search (the dreaded “SSSS” on your boarding pass” will have seen the screening expert “swab” their bag and place the sample inside an expensive looking machine. The machine sniffs for explosives, and can detect the smallest trace of stuff that can blow up a plane.

Why they don’t always work: only passengers selected for secondary screening are pulled aside for a swab detection. Easy to get a false positive.

Full body imager

The full body imager (or whole body imager / millimeter wave scanner) is supposed to be the holy grail of airport security. After the Nigerian underpants bomber was pulled off his plane, these new machines popped up in the news and within days, the first ones were being ordered for European airports.

Tests have been conducted on the machines, and there is a very big chance that the underpants bomber would not have been caught had he passed through one. Then there is of course the issue of privacy. We all want to fly on a plane without any terrorists wearing bombs wrapped around their groin, but apparently we draw the line at letting security staff stare at our naked bodies on a TV screen. To make matters worse, we were promised that none of the US based machines could store or send our images, but CNN already discovered that was was a lie.

Why they don’t always work: Only at select airports, only passengers pulled aside for secondary screening are asked to voluntarily go through the machine, possibly not 100% reliable.

Passenger no-fly lists

The super secret passenger no-fly lists collect data from several sources. It isn’t necessarily filled with the names of the worst terror suspects in the world, and the list has been proven to be terribly inaccurate. Worst of all, those people that have a name that matches something on the list have had a hell of a time getting through airport security.

The Nigerian underpants bomber was on one list of terror suspects, but apparently was not considered dangerous enough to warrant adding to the no-fly list. At the same time, 8 year old kids are stopped because their name matches someone dangerous.

Why they don’t always work:
Too much data, but not enough ways to find the bad guys.


Pat-downs have been proven to be ineffective – and for one simple reason; fear of embarrassing travelers. The underpants bomber would have successfully passed a pat-down because screening staff don’t do a comprehensive search. The only kind of search that will work, is the kind used in prisons.

You can’t find explosives attached to someones private parts if you don’t physically search that area. Is a full effective pat-down embarrassing? You bet it is. But it is a heck of a lot more effective than just waving a wand up and down your legs.

Why they don’t work: You can’t perform a full search, without performing an actual FULL search,

(Images courtesy of Flickr users Daquella Manera and jcortell – click images for direct source)

What strange things have been found on planes?