Airport Security Checks

I went through a security check at the Atlanta airport yesterday and one of the ladies asked it she could check my bag. I, of course, said yes, and she took it over to a table a wiped a cloth on the handle and put it under some type of scanner or light maybe.

I’ve never seen this before (I travel mostly within Europe) and am guessing it is to check for explosive and/or drug residue. Is that correct? How can the handle be that sensitive (I presume if I was carrying a weapon or explosive, I’d wash my hands at some stage)? Am I supposed to sweat it out via my hand on the handle? Why not just swipe my hands - or everyones hands? Surely this would be “allowed” under the authority given to security personnel by the FAA? What if the baggage claim caroussel attendent touches hundreds of bags and spreads the residue?

Since I was carrying neither drugs nor explosives I can’t even tell you if the system works or not…but it doesn’t seem overly efficient.

Airport Security is very hesitant about giving out exact information, for obvious reasons. When this happened to me a few weeks ago, I was told that it is a “test” of a new system that detects plastic explosive (or residue thereof.) Hardly makes sense – given the tens of thousands of people going through security who are NOT carrying plastic explosives, what would a random sampling show?

However, that’s what they said.

I heard it was to check for explosives. I don’t know how it works. Random sampling won’t work since there should be very few bags with explosives in them. You would have to check all of them to find the one with explosives. I think the x-ray inspector picks the bags to be checked.

Yes, they are testing for explosive residue.

After rubbing that cloth on your bag, they stick it into a machine they call a “sniffer”-- a gas chromatograph. It’s a very sensitive chemical analysis device, and can detect even an extremely small amount of chemical explosive. If you happened to have packed a bomb in your luggage, it’s very likely that some microscopic dust or residue would get spread around the area, and that’s the stuff that the sniffer is designed to detect.

Usually this test is not done randomly, but rather to bags which the x-ray device can’t scan satisfactorily. For instance, if you travel with a laptop (as I do), the scanner can’t see through the case very well, so they may use the “sniffer” as a secondary check.

Aside: A friend that I travelled with nearly got in a lot of trouble, because he had gunpowder residure on one of his carryon bags. (He’d once carried a box of bullets in that bag, several months previously.) They did a thorough manual search of all his bags, and verified that his computer was an actual working device, before they would let him get on the plane.

Laugh hard; it’s a long way to the bank.

Okay, maybe it can pick up an extremely small quantity of explosives but if that is the case - why not open my bag and swipe the INSIDE as opposed to the handle. She didn’t even open the bag.

By the way, it was a soft duffel bag without any electronics - but I was carrying a laptop, cords and cd player in my other bag.

Seems random to me.

(and you can’t say they checked one bag based on what was in another bag because they didn’t know to whom each of the bags belonged as it was very busy.)

BTW, if they can “sniff” a swab of cotton, why can’t they just put a “sniffer” in the x-ray machine? Note: I understand the cost issue but if they have one machine, would it not be better to hook it up to one x-ray machine and “sniff” thousands of bags instead of just a few randomly?

Or is that too much common sense?

They may have just been testing the machine to see whether it has a problem with false positives.

Everytime this has happened to me is when I have had my laptop in the bag in question.

The bags are spotted by the person running the x-ray machine and pointed out to the person with the sniffer. If you had two bags and your computer/etc was in the other bag, it’s possible that the x-ray operator pointed out the wrong bag to check.

“Drink your coffee! Remember, there are people sleeping in China.”

Dennis Matheson —
Hike, Dive, Ski, Climb —

i go with labradorian. if it’s a new system, they want to check for false positives, too.

does the term “control group” ring a bell?

First of all, as to the general abilities of American security check employees, I hate to say it, but most of them can’t even properly detect a gun in a bag, let alone competently determine if you have explosives in the bag. Time and time again, they fail when tested with relatively easy efforts to circumvent or simply pass through their ‘vigilance.’ To assume that they have the moxie to be worried about ‘control groups’ is probably giving them a bit too much credit.

As to the search, well, that is simple. Absent some really good suspicion that you have explosives, weapons, or drugs in your bag, they can’t open it. They might not be able to even ‘seize’ it without your permission - you will note they ask you for permission to do the external check. I suppose if you declined you could get quite a hassle, and, frankly, I don’t mind them checking - anything to make the plane safer! If you want a listing of relevant 4th amendment cases, I can follow up for you. :slight_smile:

Aura can more fully explain the logistics of making the check, but I think that it is likely at present less costly to do the wipe and sniff than to have a hand-held remote sniffer. There may be other reasons.

I can’t even begin to express how comforted I am by the thought that the x-ray person might have pointed to the wrong bag!

MAYBE a control group is the correct reason that my bag was selected and they are already testing the bags this way, but I strongly doubt it.

A control group needs to be 100% sure, and testing the handle may leave a little room for error. Why not swipe the inside and at least search the bag? The effectiveness of this “control group” could be called into question because testing only the handle still seems pretty odd to me and, not being trained in super-sniffer technology, makes me think it would be a poor test. Or at least open to misreadings which a control group cannot be.

Anyway, can they really tell that much from wiping cotton on a bag handle?

Airport security is getting sloppy (IMHO). I travel by air a fair amount. Twice this fall, I was not asked “the Questions” by the airline staff (has your luggage been in your possession/has anyone unknown to you, etc.) I know that these aren’t the same people as the airport security screens, but still.

So I have no great faith in airport security’s ability to find anything that someone really wants to keep hidden.

Have a nice flight.

Never attribute to malice anything that can be attributed to stupidity.
– Unknown

I’ve always wondered about that question “Has your luggage been out of your site?”

Of course it has! I leave it with the bellhop at the hotel while I do my last day sight-seeing, then the hotel van employee puts it in the back of the van, etc… What happens if you answered “Yes, it has been out of my sight.” Would they ask to search your belongings?

J’ai assez vécu pour voir que différence engendre haine.

P.S. change out of your site to out of your sight

J’ai assez vécu pour voir que différence engendre haine.

Yep, here’s another WAG from me:

I think the swab test is specifically supposed to detect antimony as I recall. I toured the San Diego crime lab once, but I can’t be totally sure if I’m remembering this right. Apparently antimony is one of those elements that 90% of the time if you have it on you, you’ve been ‘up to no good’ because it’s a major ingredient in gun powder. The alternative is they may be checking for ‘Taggins’(sp?) which I understand are chemical markers specifically placed in explosives when they are sold commercially to help identify where they came from (which in turn might help you identify who bought them or the underlying ingredients)

Now as for the ‘why wipe the handle part’, I remember the gun powder/ explosive residue stays on your hands for some time and we assume that even the stupidest bomber probably hides the bomb INSIDE something (like a fake laptop), so the inside of the bag might not show anything. Meanwhile, you may wash your hands thinking you got the chemical traces off (and it’s my understanding they don’t just come off with soap and water) then carry the bag around all day. The antimony leaches out of your skin on to the handle…hence why you’d check the handle for the residue.

i travel a bit…and am usually asked, so accurately referred to as, the questions…always the same (did you pack your own bag, etc).
i was leaving NYC in september, and the woman at the counter asked, “do you know what’s in your bag?” she asked me twice, because i thought it was a trick question. 1, maybe she was curious. 2, maybe it was a trick question. so i said, yeah, cds, clothes…magazines…
so she said, “ok” and that was it.
maybe they are x-raying the luggage check in…that way they don’t have to rely on your honesty…they can find out for themselves…

Hrm. this reminds me of a rather disturbing airport security incident a few years ago.

I went through the metal detector, and it went off. I unloaded all metal from my pockets, and went through again. Again, the metal detector went off.

The security agent looked at my shoes, said “are those metal-toed shoes?” They were, as i suddenly realized what was causing the problem.

I said yes, they were metal-toed shoes. At this point i figured she would ask me to take them off and try again. But no, she just nodded and waved me through :open_mouth:

Do they still ask you to turn the laptop on?

This is a funny chapter in Dave Barry’s novel Big Trouble (also comments on airport securuty), but I won’t explain, it willruin the plot…

There was a guy smuggling a boa on the plane around his body in the book, as well.

I wonder if anyone tried to take small pets, like rats, and ended up x raying them?

I have two funny stories regarding airport security:

I used to work for Apple doing tech support. We would get “calls of the week” in our email newsletters. My favorite was from a stand-up comedian who was touring the different improv clubs. He and his partner did a lot of flying, and he owned Powerbooks - an kind of Mac laptop. Whenever they went through security, he was always asked to start the computer up. Once, when he started it, the laptop crashed on boot. Any of you familiar with the graphic a Mac displays when it crashes? In a startled voice, the comedian said “Oh, I got a bomb!” . . . and subsequently spent several hours trying to explain himself to airport security. (The graphic shown when a Mac crashes is a small round bomb with a lit fuse.)

Penn and Teller had a small bit in their book “How to Play in Traffic”. They said under no circumstances would they take legal responsibility for it, but if any of their readers would take a picture of themselves in arab garb, standing in an airport with a sign that said “Will watch and repack your luggage for free”, they would run the picture.

(Oh, I’m sorry, was this not MPSIMS? Bad phouka, bad phouka . . . )

Frankfurt airport has super tight security and they ask you to turn your laptop on. Their metal detectors are so sensitive the magnetic strip on your credit card will set them off.
Just to increase your paranoia, the cotton swab test can also quickly and easily reveal if the swabbed item has been in the presence of marijuana smoke.

OK, a few things…

  1. I asked around and the concensus at the airport agrees with Yarster. The swab test on the handle is to find traces from your hands that have been transfered to the handle. This means that the piece of luggage which is tested does not have to be the same one they are curious about as long as both pieces are being carried by the same person.

  2. In my experience USAn airports are about mid-range as far as levels of security go. Some Caribbean countries have no security while other countries have quite high security. I was frisked in the Tokyo Narita airport once and all my luggage was opened and dumped out on a search table. I also had a coworker who spent several hours with security in the Frankfurt airport after making an ill-considered joke. (Never joke with airport security.)

  3. I have been asked to turn on my laptop in the past, but not recently. OTOH, on the last flight I took I had to turn on my pager and cell phone and the security person took out my camera and looked through it.

“Drink your coffee! Remember, there are people sleeping in China.”

Dennis Matheson —
Hike, Dive, Ski, Climb —