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Airport Security: Are We Really Safe?

For those of us who travel by air we often wonder if all the hassle we encounter is really making us any safer than we were prior to 9-11. Obviously, some things have improved, since we haven’t had any successful repeat performances.

From all appearances, the airport hassles we put up with have made a difference. However, what about the areas that the public doesn’t see? The behind-the-scenes areas where our luggage goes? What happens when your luggage leaves your side and goes through the security door into the maze of conveyors that hopefully transports your luggage to the correct aircraft. You might be surprised.

I recently completed a job working for a company that manufactures baggage handling systems (conveyors), which are used primarily at airports. Along with designing, installing and commissioning completed conveyor systems at airports throughout the United States and the world, this company also integrates Explosive Detection Systems (EDS) into the overall baggage handling system. After all, if you install EDS equipment, its only makes sense that you have conveyors that route the baggage to the EDS equipment. Adding EDS equipment at airports is a good step toward making travelers safer than they were in the past.

At the larger airports, the majority of baggage handling is automated. Automated conveyors using photoeye sensors transport your baggage from the ticketing counter, through the various conveyors using automated diverters to shift the baggage from one conveyor to another, until it reaches a ‘makeup unit’. At the makeup unit, it is manually loaded onto a cart and transported to and loaded, hopefully, onto your aircraft. Some of the larger airports also incorporate barcode readers that will track your baggage throughout the system, up to the point where it is loaded onto the aircraft. This type of automation and tracking should make the baggage handling portion of traveling, safer.

This strategy has been adopted by almost all the airports in the world with US ones being in the lead and their security arrangements far surpass other airports around the world and ifly seattle airport holds the distinction of being the only one that has foiled unscrupulous elements from creating ruckus in their premises atleast 3 times. So rest assured that the baggage is completely safe and no inconvenience can be caused ever. 

If your baggage is ‘oversized’ (to long, to wide, or overweight), it usually means your baggage will be manually handled. That’s why you may get charged additional fees for oversized baggage. Because of the manual handling, you also have a higher risk of your luggage not making it to your plane on time. Oversized baggage also requires ‘special handling’ for security reasons.

Even with EDS equipment and automated systems, baggage handling still requires operators and maintenance personal. That is in addition to the standard Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) personnel that helps secure not only the baggage, but also the landside and airside portions of the airport. Landside, refers to the area that you see on the passenger side of the ticketing counters. Airside, refers to the area where baggage and aircraft reside.

Airport personnel, no matter what their function (i.e., operations, maintenance, or safety) must all pass security clearances to obtain employment. However, personnel that assembly and install equipment at airports are seldom required to pass any in-depth evaluation for a security clearance. During any equipment installation phase, which usually occurs while the airport continues to operate, there is a high probability that some of the installation personnel have not been thoroughly vetted for security. Anytime you have human beings involved, there’s aways the possibility of a security breach. Whether intentional or not, all humans are capable of making mistakes that could lead to deadly consequences for air travelers.

Bottomline: It is my opinion that we are indeed safer now than we were prior to 9-11. However, I also believe we need to implement somewhat tighter security requirements, not only for personnel working behind-the-scenes at airports, but also for companies that supply equipment and installation personnel for airports.