Security paranoia in airports: How far will it go?

I still remember how it was about 3 decades ago: The only concern of a photographer passing the security check when travelling by airplane was that the film doesn’t get damaged when it was x-rayed. They were letting your photo bag run through a machine, and the whole procedure took only a couple of seconds. Nothing bad was happening also to films, but the newest scanners soon got a sticker claiming that the x-raying was “film safe”. Then I wasn’t carrying so much equipment with me as these days, therefore I can’t report more details from my own experience. However, I can recall about several flights back in 80s and 90s when I had “electronic devices” in my hand luggage, such as a walkman, that the security checks were targetting only items completely prohibited for carrying on board, such as weapons, amunition, inflamable materials, etc.

Then the terror acts of 9/11 happened. Allegedly, the hijackers of the aircrafts were armed with knives. In consequence, also items that not only are but even resemble a knife – scissors, nail files, etc. – were prohibited in carry-on baggage. Once when I was flying from Nuremberg to Kiev via Paris I forgot a small Victorinox knife in a pocket of my coat. It passed the security check in Nuremberg without any problems. In Paris they found it and confiscated.

My luggage before check-in at an airport.

My luggage before check-in at an airport.

Subsequently the paranoia of security policy makers and of airport companies was only growing. In the next years, they prohibited to carry liquids on board – claiming that they may be used for mixing a bomb. Then they told that someone attempted to smuggle an explosive material through security check in shoe soles. Since then, in many airports you have to take off your shoes, so that they x-ray them while you are walking barefooted through a magnetic scanner.

Today, if you want to travel by airplane, you have to lay off your privacy and sense of shame. More sophisticated person scanners were developed and introduced in some large airports, such as Amsterdam Schiphol. First they were showing the body of the person scanned along with the objects he or she has in the pockets. After protests, this was changed, and now the security staff sees only a standardised shape of a man or woman with the suspicious areas marked. Of course, you have to take out everything from your pockets and to remove the belt from your trousers before that procedure. Nonetheless, after scanning personal search follows: You are being pawed.

Travelling by airline that was once a pleasure and a great experience has become in this century just an unpleasant procedure that one needs to go through in order to get to a certain place on the planet. Comfort and luxury remained in the past; in the 21st century, airports and flights are associated more with harassments by security staff and insane regulations. Were that terrorists, or airport companies, or security firms who have made and continue making personal rights and comfort of passengers subordinate to prevention of supposed security risks? Since regulations and procedures are different at every airport, I doubt that universal requirements and standards exist for this. It looks like airport companies or even the security firms that they hire define checking procedures according to what they believe to be adequate. I travel several times a year through the same airports and observe that the procedures change very frequently and without any obvious reasons. In the same transit airport that you passed flying somewhere the security check may be completely different when you’ll be returning in a few days. In fact, I can’t remember that the procedure was two times the same when I was travelling in the past years since 2001.

Today the airport security staff doesn’t search only for prohibited items anymore. It appears that they don’t know themselves what to search for, hence they search for everything that they consider to be dangerous. What is just a short unpleasant routine check for the majority of passengers for professional travellers carrying “non-standard” items in hand luggage is often a much more complicated and annoying procedure.

Usually a photographer would take as much equipment as possible in hand luggage on board – not only because it is fragile and costs a lot but also to reduce the weight of the main luggage that normally is limited to only 3kg in the economy class. Although the weight of the hand luggage is limited too (usually to 5-12kg), it is rarely being controlled by airlines – particularly if the size of the bag doesn’t exceed the officially allowed.

I always carry lenses and camera bodies only in hand luggage. Sometimes these are flashes and other electronic devices. Of course, if I have a laptop computer on the trip, I also bring it with me on board. I pack all this as compact as possible in order not to attract attention and because only one bag is allowed in hand luggage. Including the weight of the container (bag or case) my hand luggage usually weighs around 15kg, i.e. much more than officially allowed. However, even when they noticed that at check-in, in KLM and Lufthansa they allowed me this overweight agreeing that these items can’t be put in the main baggage. Then I was either requested to give the bag to stewards on boarding so that they keep it on appropriate place during the flight or to take out some items and put into other bag thus making the weight of each bag to fit the allowed limit. When I travel together with my wife, I take even more equipment in hand luggage in a second bag. Even then the weight of both bags usually exceeds the limit however.

Of course, my hand luggage that is full of electronics always attracts attention during airport security checks, but every time to very different extent. To reach a destination outside the EU, I always need to change the airplane in Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt. Sometimes there are even further transit airports on my way. In each of them not only the procedure but also the security regulations are different. In Africa and Asia the whole luggage is being run through scanner and after that usually inspected manually three times – when you enter the airport building, by customs, before boarding. Usually they want to see every time all that you have in your bags because photographic equipment looks suspicious on their monitors. I am sure that not only photographers but any professionals travelling with equipment are suffering these multiple controls. I am also sure that many such people go to countries like Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia or Tajikistan, but neither airport officials nor airlines seem to care about their comfort. Before you take your sit in the airplane, you have at some airports two or three times to take off your shoes, to put everything out of your pockets, to take off and on the belt, to pull the laptop of the bag… Then because the content is still looking suspicious (of course!) you have to open your bag and let the security man take out everything and control every item. This is what they usually find in my hand luggage: 8 lenses, 2 camera bodies, 2 flashes, remote flash triggers, remote camera triggers, satellite phone, mobile phone, laptop, dozens of rechargeable batteries, foldable solar panel and battery, binocular, cables, battery chargers, a couple of two-way radios, GPS… You can imagine what questions are asked by security staff and custom officers in such countries as Russia, Uzbekistan or Cuba. Even in Amsterdam when they see my luggage this makes their day: They inspect every piece of it asking what is it for.

When I was passing the Amsterdam airport this month on my way back from Central Asia they even went further – requesting me to take all items out and to put them on trays. Since my wife was with me, we had two bags. Even tripod heads were in hand luggage – not because they are fragile but because their are expensive. They requested me also to put them on a tray: At my remark that it isn’t electronic equipment the man who was checking my bag reacted that it is an item that is “looking massive”. (Hence, “massive” items in your luggage are now also under general suspicion!) As always, I also put everything that was in my pockets on a tray: iPhone, keys, wallet…; I took my watch off my hand and the belt off my trousers. Then I walked through the scanner: Only underwear, socks, shoes, trousers and shirt were on me… However, as usually in this airport, it ringed. Then, of course, a security man felt up every part of my body with his hands. I one day there’ll be a crook who would invent explosive underwear, would they make passengers to take off their pants and bras for inspection?

Indeed, what should come next: How far this paranoia and the harassments during security control in airports may go? This is what I am always thinking when I am travelling by airlines. Why there aren’t any globally valid rules and guidelines for security control? What sense do all the insane precautions in Schiphol Amsterdam have when the control of the flights that are landing there is much more slack at airports of departure? Why the same passengers with the same luggage are being controlled up to three times before they reach the aircraft? Is theoretical reducing (not completely avoiding!) of the risk of a terrorist incident really so much more important than comfort and privacy? Or are that just security firms who are making profit?