Airport Terminal Security Screenings

Architectural Design of Airports

An airport basically consists of two parts, which are usually referred to as the “land side” and the “air side.” The land side of the airport is connected to the public transport systems and roads, and it provides the point of entrance for passengers (unless they take a connecting flight). The air side of the airport consists of everything that can be accessed by plane (including the runways). Within this air-side area, secure or “sterile” zones are established. There may be multiple secure zones at one airport, which may be interconnected or separated, and within these zones, different security regulations or standards may apply. For example, there may be different zones for international and domestic flights at a single airport. However, this entry focuses on the simple case of one sterile zone created within the air side, which can be accessed from the land side.

Security screening typically takes place at the interface of the land side and the sterile zone. Only those who have successfully undergone the local security screening are allowed to enter the sterile zone. Passengers who enter the airport from the air side are usually not expected to undergo additional security screening. If one takes a connecting flight, one is expected to either stay within the sterile zone or undergo the same kind of security screening again if one has to leave and reenter the sterile zone. This indicates that local security screenings not only aim to provide security for departing flights but also serve as security measures for the whole civil aviation system as each airport serves as an entry point to the international aviation network. This is highlighted by the demands for international security standards (e.g., Convention on International Civil Aviation, Annex 17: Security—Safeguarding International Civil Aviation Against Acts of Unlawful Interference).

This line of thinking already has implications for the design of the architectural environment, which at least must support the distinction between the public part of the airport, the sterile zone, and the extensive backstage area, where, for example, luggage is transported. Since every traveler needs to be subjected to security screenings, the entry to the sterile zone must allow for effective control of the flow of passengers, and the entry presents itself as a spatial bottleneck within an otherwise usually large and open environment. This furthermore indicates that security screening is only one part of the overall security system, because additional security measures may need to be in place in order to prevent unauthorized persons from having access to the sterile zone in the first place.

As with every other checkpoint, for instance at borders, the urge to render crossing persons harmless stems arguably from the lack of knowledge of the “other.” The French anthropologist Marc Augé has deemed airports as transitory “nonplaces” that are characterized by a lack of social relations, and which therefore have a special need when it comes to the establishment of trustworthiness. This has not always been so. In the 1960s, one could easily walk up to the apron and to an aircraft, but such openness was abandoned after several politically motivated and highly publicized hijackings occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Aviation, subsequently, could no longer be thought of as a luxury elite community of the global avant-garde. Trustworthiness, as it had turned out, was not a given at all. Thus, with the awareness that aviation was part of the highly vulnerable modern mobility infrastructure, a paradigm of suspicion emerged. Passengers had to be inspected and scrutinized thoroughly to make sure they would not inflict any harm on/through aviation.

Screening Methods and Technologies

With regard to the screening process, it is useful to distinguish between the different elements of that process, which relate to the desire to prevent specific kinds of attack. In reaction to the increased numbers of hijackings, metal detectors were installed and the X-ray screening of carry-on luggage became obligatory in many countries in the late 1970s. Both measures aimed to identify what are considered to be “dangerous goods.” Weapons (e.g., guns, knives) are obvious examples here. Pat downs and the luggage screening may also detect explosives or flammable substances.

The definition of dangerous goods that are allowed in carry-on luggage has varied over time according to what was believed to be likely threats. For instance, the controversial ban of liquids was introduced after a plot to detonate several aircraft on their way from the United Kingdom to the United States and Canada with liquid explosives was foiled by the British police forces in August 2006. Subsequently, hand luggage restrictions in the United States and the European Union (as well as in many other countries around the world) were adjusted such that all liquids and gels were completely banned for an extended period. This ban has since been lightened but not abandoned. As of summer 2015, in addition to the “classical” list of forbidden objects that includes the likes of sharp objects (e.g., knives, box cutters, scissors), guns and firearms, certain sporting equipment, tools, and explosive and flammable materials, passengers are only allowed to carry liquids and gels not exceeding 100 milliliters (3.4 ounces) in separate containers, which must be placed in a transparent zip-top bag.

The liquid ban regulation has been widely criticized due to a supposed lack of effectiveness, with critics deeming it a merely symbolic effort to regain the trust of travelers. According to numerous experts, even small amounts of liquid explosives that fall within the limits of the regulation could, if strategically placed, cause major damage on board an aircraft. Efforts to repeal the liquid ban regulations have not yet been successful. The adequacy of security screening measures and carry-on luggage regulations has been questioned not only in terms of effectiveness but also in terms of the reactionary nature of these measures. Airport security screening has often been tightened only in reaction to thwarted or actual terrorist or criminal incidents.

Other criticism concerns the apparent role of negotiations, rather than security considerations, with regard to bringing certain items into the sterile zone. For example, some security experts suggest that passengers should not be allowed to take laptops on board aircraft because they present a major challenge to traditional screening devices due to the materials used (e.g., in batteries). But because of the economic importance of business travelers, bans on laptops or similar devices have not been introduced.

If one considers the technologies used in the security process as a means to enforce the existing regulations, then one can see that the desire to detect certain goods goes hand in hand with the rollout of new technologies. The introduction of explosives-trace-detection machines and advanced imaging technologies (body scanners), for instance, points to the limited functionality of metal detectors that are not suitable to detect anything but metal (as the name suggests).

The attacks of September 11, 2001, led to a shift in aviation security, as it became apparent that civil aircraft might be turned into powerful weapons. In addition, the “suicide attacker” became a prominent figure in aviation, taking its place alongside the hijacker. The perceived need to increase the level of aviation security eventually produced more restrictive screening protocols and upgrades in technology.

One notable development was a stronger emphasis on profiling programs, which aim to discriminate among the different types of travelers. Among other things, these programs allow screeners to submit different categories of travelers to different kinds of security screenings. Profiling also has to be understood in economic terms and in terms of time constraints. Screening technology is costly, and airports could reduce costs if fewer technology devices (e.g., body scanners) were used in screening only select travelers. In addition, security checkpoints function in the fashion of a valve: They slow down the flow of passengers for the sake of careful scrutiny. If profiling is implemented, it arguably would speed up the flow of travelers through the checkpoints.

Airports, therefore, have to position themselves on a continuum between the number of passengers screened in a certain period of time and the time that people spend waiting to undergo security controls. A long waiting time may make flying less attractive and may also prevent passengers from using the shops, bars, and other commercial offerings inside the airport. Therefore, being able to differentiate between more and less trustworthy travelers is a tempting option. Only the latter would then have to be subjected to additional screening measures, and subsequently, fewer expensive devices might suffice. The idea of being able to detect attackers before they undergo security screening also promises to reduce part of the pressure on the actual checkpoint, which acts as the “last line of defense” in aviation.

Human Effect of Screening Procedures

One of the most controversial technological means that has been introduced to provide enhanced security is “advanced imaging technologies” or “security scanners,” which are commonly known as “body scanners” and are often referred to in public debates as “naked scanners.” The machines had only been introduced at a wider level in the European Union after December 25, 2009, when an attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit with explosives hidden in the attacker’s underpants was foiled. In the aftermath of this incident, authorities of several countries decided to opt for technology that had already stirred public debates in the United States, where body scanners had been deployed several years earlier.

Body scanners basically provide the capability to look under a passenger’s clothes by analyzing the reflection of radiation from the skin surface. However, from this reflection, a visual image is computed that strikingly resembles a picture of the naked human body. Thus, protests arose, centered on complaints in terms of an intrusion of intimacy and privacy, as well as in terms of violations of religious beliefs.

Apart from concerns with body scanners, airport security screening in general has a rather negative reputation. Besides the protocols and technologies described so far, one may encounter—depending on the country and the specific airport—requests to remove one’s shoes and/or all electronic devices (e.g., laptops, tablets) from his or her carry-on luggage in order to have them screened separately, passage through a metal detector portal, manual pat downs, submission to explosives detection devices, or even submission to sniffer, or detection, dogs. Security screening at airports is by no means convenient, and considerable criticism has been uttered toward screening practices with regard to groping, sexual harassment, humiliation, discrimination, and other issues.

Arguably, this is at least partly due to the power imbalance that one encounters at the screening checkpoint. The passenger, although formally the paying customer, has little leverage to challenge screening practices or choose the technologies by which he or she would like to be screened. Particularly in the United States, civil initiatives have been calling for more dignified screening practices. For instance, the Transportation Security Administration has established the possibility for an opt-out when it comes to body scanners, but passengers who opt out would then need to undergo an enhanced pat-down procedure, which some have argued does not necessarily enhance passenger convenience.

When it comes to the social relations of the airport security checkpoint, another rather problematic issue is the outsourcing and privatization of the actual screening activities in many countries. As many authors have argued, such outsourcing undermines the democratic legitimacy of civil servants (e.g., police officers) when it comes to rather invasive screening measures. Most notably, the U.S. government, as a response to 9/11, founded the federal Transportation Security Administration to recapture security screening within the public domain.

Final Thoughts

Airport security serves multiple purposes: Screenings are set to make sure that passengers have been cleared in terms of identification (“Is the physical person identical with the person on the ticket and also identical with the presented ID documents?”), in terms of authorization (“Does the person present a valid flight ticket that entitles him or her access to the sterile zone or does he or she need access for work reasons?”), in terms of carry-on goods (“Does the person transport any dangerous objects?”), and, arguably most important, in terms of trustworthiness (“Can the person be considered harmless?”).

However, those multiple purposes can create multiple tensions as well. The latter notion of establishing trustworthiness has often been especially criticized. Practices, regulations, and technology all converge at the screening checkpoint and combine to form a strict regime of scrutiny. Particularly in the wake of 9/11, public unease has peaked, as airport screening around the world has undergone major transformations that have attempted to tighten procedures in order to enhance and ensure security—often in stark contrast to the convenience and uninterrupted journeys that aviation advertisements suggest.

Matthias Leese and Michael Nagenborg

See also Airport Security ; Border Patrol Checkpoints ; Passenger Profiling ; Security, Concepts of ; Technology

Further Readings

Lippert, Randy and Daniel O’Connor. “Security Assemblages: Airport Security, Flexible Work, and Liberal Governance.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, v.28/3 (2003).

Lyon, David. “Airport Screening, Surveillance, and Social Sorting: Canadian Responses to 9/11 in Context.” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, v.48/3 (2006).

Martin, Lauren L. “Bombs, Bodies, and Biopolitics: Securitizing the Subject at the Airport Security Checkpoint.” Social & Cultural Geography, v.11/1 (2010).

Salter, Mark B., ed.Politics at the Airport. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.