Friday, January 13, 2012

Airport security: screening, scanners & more

On my family's latest trip, I encountered the famous (or infamous) body scanner. This is the new airport security screening device that reveals what you look like nude, and also reveal whether you're packing forbidden items on your person.

It happened in Amsterdam, at Schiphol airport, at the gate for our flight back to Vancouver. As boarding began, everyone had to put their hand luggage through the x-ray machine as usual. Then, instead of the usual metal detector, there were two booths made of what looked like plexiglass and metal, about the size of phone booths.

The kids were not allowed to go through the body scanners, instead they were "wanded" by security screeners instead, meaning they were just checked for metal items the same as usually happens to a traveler that sets off a metal detector. My husband and I were required to enter a booth stand in the designated way with our feet apart and arms over our heads. Then the scanning device hummed and circled our bodies inside the booth, and we were free to go.

Airport security
If you travel by plane, you will be dealing with various kinds of airport security no matter where you travel. And if you're traveling with kids, things go easier if you prepare them for what's coming, and are also prepared yourself, for what is going to happen. Here are some of the security screening devices and procedures air-travelers can run into on their trip:

Hand-luggage x-ray machine
This is the machine where you put your hand-luggage on the belt, and it is then checked by a screener to see if there are any suspicious items inside. When going through this machine, you also have to:
  • empty your pockets
  • take off your coat and sometimes your shoes (I have only ever had to do this at US airports), and any stuffed animals should also be put through this machine too (as my daughter is well aware of by now)
  • take your properly packaged liquids out of your hand-luggage
  • sometimes remove larger electronics, like laptops, from your bag, though in some places you can get away with using a checkpoint friendly bag
Sometimes the screeners won't be happy just x-raying your stuff, and then you might end up with someone searching through your carry-on by. This has only happened to me a couple of times over the years, and I think the experience was worst for whatever screener had to go through my crammed mom-bag...

Old-school metal detectors
This is the usual "door-frame" that you walk through, either clearing it and getting a green light, or making it beep and getting a red light. If you set off the beep, a screener will usually "wand" you to find out what's setting off the alarm, and might also pat you down. I usually send the kids through the detector first and then follow close behind. Wearing as few metal items as possible (no big belt buckles or too much other bling) is a good way to make sure you get through quickly.

Body scanners: x-ray and millimeter wave scanners
The scanner we went through in Amsterdam was the millimeter wave scanner, or radio wave scanner. In EU countries, this is the only approved type of body scanner. It uses slightly different electromagnetic energy than the x-ray scanners that have been installed at some US airports. There is a lot of discussion and controversy about these scanners. Like I mentioned, my kids did not have to go through the body scanner, I'm guessing because of the whole "radiation is bad for you" issue.

Explosives trace-detection portal machine
According to Wikipedia, this thing is also called a "puffer" or "trace portal machine". I encountered it last year when traveling through Keflavik airport in Iceland with the kids. My 4 year old daughter was randomly selected for special screening as we were headed for our flight to Seattle. I asked the staff if they really, seriously wanted to pull aside a 4 year old for this, and apparently they did: they were supposed to pick passengers at random and didn't want to mess with that. I had to come along of course, as did my son.

All of us were escorted to a separate room. Our clothes and hands were wiped down by a screener who then put her own gloves and the piece of material she had used to wipe us with, into the "puffer". This device can detect minute traces of forbidden substances, such as explosives. It only took a second for the sample to be analyzed and we were all "clear".

We were also patted down, and our hand-luggage was searched. The kids were OK, but a little apprehensive. The screeners were friendly however, and that helped a lot. The fact that we made it to our flight with only minutes to spare made this experience extra-unforgettable!

Immigration/passport check
This is yet another lineup you will face when you're traveling abroad. Of course you need to show your passport (or other ID as required), and sometimes your boarding pass. The officer here will also usually ask some questions about you and your trip. 

This is a place where it is important to keep your kids close to you: no one can usually pass through the checkpoint until the passports have been looked over and stamped. When you have impatient children, this can sometimes be a challenge, so it's good to be prepared to reel them in and hold them close for this!

For some tips on how to get through security with less hassle, read my old blog-post 7 tips to get through airport security faster, with our without kids

More information about airport security can be found on these websites and others:
The body scanner image avatar comes from TSA, via Wikimedia.

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