The Passenger Airport Security Screening Experience…From Start To Finish

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3/08/09 – The Passenger Airport Security Screening Experience…From Start To Finish

Over the past few days I have been writing about airport security and traveller personal security. Over the course of these few posts I have been revisiting important topics I think every traveller should know to make their experience easier, smoother, less stressful and overall safer for them on the road.

It has been quite a while since I discussed the anatomy of the airport security screening process. So while summer travel hits its peak period in the Northern Hemisphere, I thought now was a good time to revisit this topic.

Of all the e-mails I receive, airport security and the whole process of airport security tops the list of questions, comments and complaints. Maybe it is just that I am in tune with how airport security works that it does not phase me, but I know the whole process is confusing and frustrating to millions of air travellers around the world.

So…without further ado…I present to you, The Passenger Airport Security Screening Experience…From Start To Finish. This security process is virtually identical around the world.

1) The Line Up — The Line Up is simple. It is where passengers begin to line up to enter the security-screening checkpoint. You only enter the security-screening checkpoint once you have your boarding pass (I have seen people get all the way through the security line only to be turned away because they forgot to pick up their boarding pass).

2) The ID Checker — This is the security person at the ‘entrance’ to the actual screening process. This person inspects your photo identification (usually a passport or drivers license) and your travel documents to make sure your name/face match those on your boarding pass.

3) The Barker — ‘The Barker’ is the security person who walks up and down the line ‘barking’ that you should have your boarding pass and valid photo identification out and available for inspection, that your laptop should be out of your bag for x-ray inspection and that you are only entitled to only pass through security with no more than 3oz of liquids in each container (you may actually have 3.4oz), these containers must be in one single 1-quart bag and only one bag per person (hence ‘3-1-1′ bag). “The Barker” may also split a single line into two lines, ask to see you boarding pass and at times just intimidate inexperienced travelers.

4) The Long Table — The actual x-ray and metal detector process usually begins with a long table with plastic bins. This is where you remove your shoes (if required, the TSA does require it everywhere though); your laptop (if required); your 3-1-1 bag (now
virtually universal at all security worldwide). You also want to start making sure you have no metal on you, this means place your coins, keys, mobile phone, etc in a secure pocket, or inside one of your bags.

5) The Bins — Every ‘Long Table’ has ‘The Bins.’ ‘The Bins’ are where you’ll place your jacket, laptop and other lose items. Some airports require shoes go in a bin, others do not. When it doubt, toss them in a bin.

6) The X-Ray Scanner — At the end of the ‘Long Table” is the X-Ray Scanner and its conveyor belt. You want to place your bags and bins in the X-Ray scanner. Remember that bins go in vertically NOT horizontally. Make sure you witness your bags entering the X-Ray scanner before proceeding to the next step, and from that moment never take your eyes off the ‘exit’ of the x-ray scanner! Also remember to keep your boarding pass out and in your hand, do not place that through with your bags and bins.

7) The Metal Detector — Once your bags and bins are in the x-ray scanner (and your boarding pass is in your hand!) you’ll line up for the metal detector. Always wait outside the metal detector until the security personnel have motioned for you to pass through the metal detector. Before passing through pat yourself down to check for any metal items you may have missed. If you have any loose metal items declare them before you go through the metal detector.

7a) The Metal Detector Wand (if you set off the alarm)– ‘The Wand’ is a simple hand held metal detector used by security personnel to check passengers who have set off the metal detector multiple times. You are usually hold your arms out and are ‘traced’ with the wand to find the source of the metal.

8 ) The Rollout — ‘The Roll-Out’ is the end of the X-Ray scanner where you retrieve your bags-n-bins. Pay attention that you have all your items and that they have exited the x-ray scanner before walking off. Take your items methodically from the x-ray scanner and if you must ‘put yourself back together’ do so at the chair or benches away from the x-ray scanner. By moving away from the x-ray scanner you’re not only allowing other
passengers to proceed through, but you’re also moving to a calmer environment to put your shoes on, put your laptop away, put your 3-1-1 bag away and retrieve the small metal items you have placed in a pocket or a bag.

9) The Bag Check (**NOT EVERYONE GETS A BAG CHECK**) — There seem to be few words dreaded more than hearing “BAG CHECK LANE 7″ (or whatever lane you’re in) for many passengers. Honestly, I know what my carry on bags look like and I’m personally often more concerned when I don’t here this being yelled out while the x-ray security operator is viewing my bag. A bag check is really simple. You collect all your items, just as discussed in “8 ) The Rollout” and a security screener carries one of your bags, in your full view, to a separate table. At that table you must never touch your items unless instructed to do so, the screener will look through tour bag and possibly wipe it down with a swab intended to detect explosives. This is not a big deal; when they are done you repack your bag (unless you have explosives in which case you have a lot of explaining to do and you’ll be greeted by law enforcement shortly).

10) Have A Good Flight — Make sure you have all of your possessions and head off into the terminal to have a good flight.

Below is a photo of the TSA security screening process at JFK Airport’s Terminal 7.

Happy Flying!




  1. In Australia and New Zealand you can also be tested for explosives on your person as well as your bag. I get this about 50% of my flights.

  2. My bags are tested for explosives often in various airports due to the way I pack my cameras. My packing makes x-raying the bag difficult. Getting secondary screening falls under “BAG CHECK!”

    Happy Flying!


  3. Regarding laptop scanning, I recently bought a new laptop for which I also bought a thin cover to stop scratches on the metal macbook surface. I did not use a cover on my old laptop and I’ve always been required to take my laptop out of my bag for xrays. Do you know if the requirement also involves removing any kind of thin covers off the laptop?

    By the way, the security and experience posts have been great to read, thank you!

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