Airport security is the worst. Even with the shrinking amount of space passengers have on board, going through security is almost always the most miserable part of any journey. Aviation journalist John Walton breaks down how to get through the painful process as hassle-free as possible.
I’m continually struck by how airports worldwide all have different standards and procedures. They say it’s to keep the baddies on their toes, but I couldn’t argue against you if you said it’s because they’re just bad at keeping anything consistent. There are also rarely any signs about what needs to come off or be taken out at some airports, making it a real pleasure to be yelled at in the queue because you’re not telepathic.
But beyond just taking out the usual liquids and gels, I’ve developed a set of tricks to speed my way through security. You have two key goals here: getting yourself through the human scanner without setting off the alarm and getting your bag through the X-ray without needing a secondary search.
Figure out if you’re facing a metal detector or body scanner — or both
There are generally two types of primary scanner in use: the older metal detectors that look like a square arch, and the newer body scanners, the ones where you have to raise your arms in the air like some sort of wild west criminal.
Metal detectors work in a pretty self-explanatory way, so obviously you should avoid wearing metal wherever possible. (If, like my dad, you have metal replacement knees, I hereby authorise you to wear shorts through the airport and to gesture expansively at your knee scars when you get to security. You’ll probably be patted down or have the magic wand waved at you instead.)
Body scanners, meanwhile, come in two flavours, but basically work by zapping you with either low-energy X-rays or microwaves and comparing the results to what their programmers think a human should look like and what a human with anything threatening should not.
Initially, these devices sent what were essentially naked negative pictures of you into people sitting in a backroom, which was predictably as much of a privacy and misconduct disaster as you might imagine. Nowadays, the various types of body scanners mostly involve a security staffer having to press a button for either “male” or “female”, and a computer algorithm comparing the shape of your body to a dataset.
If you happen not to present as your assigned birth gender, are non-binary or trans, or just happen not to physically to that person’s view of what “male” or “female” means, be prepared for the machine to throw up errors.
Similarly, the machines don’t seem to have been trained to recognise the shape of larger bodies, so they often alarm on love handles or a belly. There’s usually a sort of mannequin displayed on a screen with a yellow or red blob over areas that the machine hasn’t been able to parse. Note that, in most developed countries, you have the right to ask for any subsequent pat-down screening to be done in private.
Beyond “no metal”, choose your clothing thoughtfully
Metal is bad for metal detectors and body scanners both, so this is perhaps not the time for those jeans with the chunky zipper or, worse, buttons.
Take care with shoes, especially dressier shoes, which can often have a metal support shank hidden inside. You usually won’t know until they set off the alarm at some airport somewhere, but if you do know then perhaps pack them instead of wearing them. And consider something that you can slip on and off easily — whether that’s actual slipons or a part of laced shoes you can tie loosely until you get through security.
Avoid wearing any loose clothing or extra layers through a body scanner, because layers can set the machine off. (This is, of course, counter to the advice to wear loose, comfortable clothing with layers when flying — the trick is to make sure you take most of it off and send it through with your bags at the X-ray machine.) I try to wear a t-shirt maximum through security as a result.
Empty all your pockets, even of things like tissues or a lip balm, and avoid thick or multiple pockets. Cargo pants or shorts can be convenient for travel, but again the extra material can set the body scanners off.
But It’s also helpful to think about how clothing can help, and not just hinder. If you keep things like your wallet and phone in your pockets rather than in a handbag, consider a jacket or hoodie, especially one with zipper or button pockets, to disgorge your things into. This not only keeps them safe, it keeps your actual hand luggage looking more organised and less likely to be flagged for a secondary search.
Make your bag as easy to scan as possible
When your bag is X-rayed, for the most part the images of it are sent to a screen attached to the machine for someone to look at.
What you want is for them to take one look, think “yep, nothing worrisome there” and hit the “OK” button. What you don’t want is for them to have to try to figure out masses of chargers, cables, headphones, and other assorted tangles, give up, and hit the “search it by hand” button.
So, take out all electronics and put them in a tray, only one layer deep. Don’t overcrowd your trays either, or cover one electronic device with another — that goes for not putting your jacket with your phone in its pocket on top of your tablet, for example.
Separate your batteries, chargers and cables into a small pouch as well: a tangle of wires inside your bag is a really good way to get your bag or tray pulled over for secondary inspection. A tangle inside a small packing cube, re-used amenity kit or even a ziplock bag is much less likely to cause concern.
Send your bags through first, so they come out and you can unload the trays straight into them.
One trick I’ve used ever since being distracted enough to have left my laptop at security one time is to point-and-count my trays out loud before putting them through the machine. That way you know how many you need to make sure you pick up on the other side. Don’t forget anything!
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