What are the purposes of various security screenings?

We just got back from a trip from Chicago to NYC. On the way out, I commented to my wife that it was curious that there had been so little change in airport security screening over the past 10 years or so. We are still required to take off our shoes and belts, carry liquids in 3 oz jars, etc.

My personal thought has always been that the majority of such screwing with travelers has always been “theater.” But I guess I understand the shoes are because one yahoo tried a shoe bomb. I should be glad they don’t have us remove our underwear. But the rest of the steps? On the way to OHare, they gave me extra attention because I failed to pull a cough drop out of my pants pocket - and I remember once being with my BIL who was almost strip searched over an overlooked antacid tablet. Realistically, what damage could something the size of a cough drop do to an airplane?

Am I being overly cynical in suspecting that the reason we are still doing this is because there is no economic incentive to do so? Enough companies and agencies profit from providing the equipment and staff, such that no one has the incentive to reduce the waste of peoples’ time?

One that really got me was going up the Empire State Building. They didn’t give us any instructions other than to take off our coats. I was sent back a second time because I didn’t empty my pockets and remove my belt, and a 3d time because I didn’t remove my watch. But I DIDN’T have to remove my shoes. Hell - I’m a sheep. I woulda stripped naked if they clearly told me to. But what harm could I possibly do to the Empire State Building with my belt or watch?

And going into a Broadway play my 61-year old wife was singled out for a wanding. My impression was that that was just random. She didn’t have any sort of bag or purse with her. But after the play, as people were spilling out onto the sidewalk, a nut coulda driven right up to the doors with a bomb - or driven into the crowd. Just seemed incongruous to hassle an older lady paying a lot of money to see a show.

On the way home, the screen was sensitive enough that they gave me special attention based on the hardware in my ankle.

I placed this in FQ, desiring a factual discussion, but I understand that it might be better in IMHO or elsewhere.I realize that this is just an aspect of our current society, but I tend to be irritated ad confused by things for which I cannot understand any rational explanation. Thanks for any help.

Well, the cough drop or the antacid tablet could have been anthrax or ricin. Some wacko in Japan tried to poison a subway carload of people a few years ago. Some means of terror are not meant to destroy an airplane or a building, just the people in it. That’s probably why little things like that cause a fuss at the TSA line. Some airports auction-off crates of pocket knives, letter openers, and such that they confiscate - how much mayhem could someone do with a box cutter?

As to why we live in such a “out-of-an-abundance-of-caution” society, I am not sure there is a factual answer there. We have the money and resources to implement such measures as you described, as well as a legal system primed and ready for any shortcomings should any of those security measures fail to prevent an incident. I would be interested in how other countries, perhaps ones that are not high on the terrorists’ target list, handle security at the airport.

It’s not like TSA screeners would even try to identify the contents a vial of powder, though. Just send it through the xray with your keys and lip balm.

Very true. However, they probably have training to look for something suspicious, so taking it out of your pocket and putting it in a tray gives them a chance to get a better look at it, as well as your reaction to being asked to remove it from your pocket.

Shoes, belts, phones, anything that has a thickness can be used to conceal explosives. The thickness of a shoe sole can vary and a slilghtly thicker sole might not be noticed. Maybe a person likes a thicker sole for height or comfort reasons, and maybe something is concealed within. A cough drop might be a reshaped C4 explosive.

If you haven’t thought about how to use these mundane articles for destructive purposes, you can be sure that the bad guys have.

Wait, someone is knocking at my door.

As I was being checked for my ankle hardware, my wife was not questioned about the various baggies of powdered pigment and varnish in her carryon…

Curiously, just the other day I read how innocuous ricin is lacking a means to adequately aerosolize it.

So, a belt can hide explosives in a manner that is not visible on the body scan, but is thru X-ray? And how much explosive could I have in my belt - to endanger the Empire. (Remember - the Empire staff let me keep my shoes on.)

In the 20 + years since the TSA was created and inacted and thusly replicated across the globe since 9-11, I am not aware of one single credible threat of a hijacking or attack thwarted by such security measures. Yes, you will see photos of handguns that were discovered by TSA at airport security checkpoints, primarily by handgun owners forgetting to take these things out before they went to get on a plane, but none that I’m aware were truly a credible threat to passenger safety.

The opportunity cost alone is in the trillions annually of wasted time and effort to go through security screenings, with no real benefit.

I do not expect there to ever be another true aircraft hijack attempt. Passengers will die before allowing the plane they are on to be used as a weapon like was done in 9-11. Flight 93 that went down in PA is evidence of that.

The past directors of homeland security have hinted at revisiting the screening procedures, but the administrations and other elected officials are too scared of the negative impact to truly reconsider the effectiveness of such procedures and the sheep (us) have gotten used to them.

I fully agree with you, Omar. Which sorta suggests a different tack. How do travelers feel about the security? What percentage of travelers feel, “No hassle is too much, because we want to eliminate ANY potential risk?”

But I don’t want to take my own thread too far from FQ. I’m aware that the sensitivity of magnetometers can be dialed up or down. And I understand that “security folk” don’t want to be too transparent about what they are looking for, because then “the terrorists will win!” :roll_eyes: But I just couldn’t figure ANY reason for taking off my belt and watch off to go up in a building.

There’s not a reason other than, as you said, the theater of security. Many people find great comfort in such guises and helped bring back traveling, toursim, etc. It took nearly 3 years after 9/11 for the number of people traveling in the US to get back to the levels of August 2011. Whereas it only took about 1 year after the pandemic outbreak for the numbers to reach pre-pandemic levels. Which tells me that people generally are more concerned about their personal security than their heath.

I have read that the only real effective measures that came out of 9/11 were reinforcing and locking the cockpit door and encouraging the passengers to fight back. All other measures were deemed to be ineffective security theater.

Air travel screening in and out of Israel has been frequently cited as being far more effective from a security standpoint than anything the US has done.

how do they do it?

Israeli airport security: What to expect

Why Israeli airport security works

They profile people, which is something we are reluctant to do here. So, we treat everyone as equally suspicious.

I worked in a field where we spent a lot of money and effort to prevent possible failures. (Nothing to do with security.) It is hard to prove that anything horrible would have happened if we didn’t make this effort. So the lack of TSA finding anything might mean that there was nothing to be found, or it might mean that people who would have done something bad decided not to because of security.
I’m old enough to remember when planes were being hijacked to Cuba nearly every week, which stopped when they put in metal detectors.
As for no changes, I’ve been through checkpoints where you didn’t have to take off your shoes, and checkpoints where you could keep electronics in your bag. There seem to be less intrusive machines coming, slowly but surely. It is getting rather confusing about what measures to take. I’ve been in airports where one line required you to remove shoes while another didn’t.

The usual reason for removing belts and shoes - and indeed anything else metal - it to get you down to a point where you should register no metal at all. No metal reading and you are OK to proceed. Getting to that makes the whole process much faster.
Belt buckles and metal arch reinforcements in shoes are a problem. It isn’t about shoe bombers or stuff hiding in your belt. Metal detection is more than just a simple magnetic detection, and stuff like foil can set things off. Hardware inside one’s body is going to be a problem.

So the ritual of de-cluttering one’s person has some basis.

How much any of this really makes a difference is another question. The argument that there have been no detections that mattered doesn’t really work, as its deterrence value is very hard to estimate or dismiss. Sadly it isn’t just terrorists that we worry about in the modern world. Random people with significant mental issues or grievances and a desire for vengeance or notoriety have become a part of life. Someone who wants to go out with a bang (literally) might decide that a high profile exit taking a planeload with him would be a great idea.

The annoying personality displayed by security is often just a refection of minimum wage and a really shit job. Moreover, there is probably zero incentive to be civil, but large downsides for messing up. They probably get random checks for performing security right, but never checks for civility.

I dunno, they asked me and my wife, nice lily-white people, as we were boarding in Ben Gurion “who do you know in Jordan?”
“Huh???” Took a few seconds to realize - “Oh, the Jordan passport stamp was from last year, when we went to Petra via Amman.”

A lot of this is theatre. There was in fact an underwear bomber, who mainly succeeded in giving himself very uncomfortable burns, but fortunately he’ll have 20-to-life to recuperate.

They ban clear liquids (or coloured) because you can mix up a clear liquid into an explosive in the toilet from what you carried on. It’s not feasible to make every TSA agent an analytical chemist, so they ban liquids instead.

The shoes thing is so they can put the shoes through the Xray - presumably, wires and blasting cap will be obvious - something has to ignite the C4 in the insole. The belt, (a) same thing and (b) so they can put you through a metal detector and be confident you are not concealing metal implements like guns or Glock. I’d hazard a guess that the amount of explosive to take out an aircraft - explosive decompression - is probably not going to do a significant damage to the Empire State Building, except maybe in the elevator.

(There was a notable case - Uganda? Ethiopia? Where the terrorist’s laptop went off, IIRC all it did was make a small hole in the side of the plane and the fellow holding the laptop I think got sucked through it.)

The random search thing is to ensure terrorists understand that using a harmless looking decoy - even in a child’s diaper or grandma’s wheel chair lap blanket - is no guarantee there won’t be a search. These are the guys who are happy to use the mentally challenged as suicide bombers, the ones who used power drills as torture devices in Iraq, who shot up an Olympic village. If you can think it up, someone else has.

As for truck bombs (or cars) - there’s really not a lot that can be done, except to block off the most obvious. targets with concrete barriers. If every theatre or sport evnt is at risk, there’s a limit to how safe you can make it. Fortunately (!??) it’s not the terrorists that are the problem most of the time it’s some local nut with a gun.

yes, hijacking used to be - “stay calm, cooperate, and once you’re on the ground we’ll negotiate the end.” Bin Laden exploited this. It stopped working about the third time, since the fourth time - thanks to cellphones - the terrorists failed their objective. And likely, it will never work again.

I like the signs at the Cancun airport security that basically say “Keep your shoes on, silly Americans”!

Also helped by the fact that the number of passengers flying from airports in Israel is fairly small. It’s less passengers than fly from Seattle. So that small volume makes it easier to do security. Ramping up that security to bigger airports like Atlanta of London Heathrow would be real hard.

Have you travelled through Tel Aviv airport? You go through, at a minimum, four security checks or interviews. Do you really want that at every airport?

Security checks are not real security. They are notional security. Their primary purpose is to make people feel safe.

No one would tolerate real security.