We talked to a security officer to find out the biggest airport security mistakes, and got all the tips, tricks and hacks to help you avoid them.

The security hall at East Midlands Airport (EMA), UK. We talked to a security officer at one of London's airports to learn the biggest mistakes and get some airport security hacks.
Security hall at EMA | © Derbyshire Live

We’ve spoken a lot lately about delays caused by extreme queues at security, and the staff shortages making the transition from landside to airside a lengthy and difficult one. But following some of the biggest recruitment drives the aviation sector has ever seen, airports are doing their utmost to bust these queues and get passengers on their way. Now, the biggest threat to your timekeeping is – well, actually, it’s you.

We spoke to a security officer (X) at one of London’s major airports to ask about the biggest mistakes people make – and how to avoid them.

The biggest airport security mistakes

The biggest mistake a passenger can make, our anonymous officer tells us, is not listening to the security staff.

 

We’re telling you these things for a reason – we don’t get paid by the word. If we ask you to take something out of your bag or double-check (pockets), it’s for a reason. Your bags will be rejected and have to be manually searched if you don’t remove certain items – these are CAA and DfT rules we have to follow, and we have no power to change or circumvent them. Even if you’re a frequent flier – these rules can (and do) change.

The UK has some of the strictest airport security protocols in Europe. Rules are often different in different countries – some countries will allow additional liquid bags, for example. X tells us it’s important not to assume that just because you’ve been allowed to take something through security in one airport or country, it will be allowed in another. Officers are simply doing their jobs when they’re enforcing the rules, so arguing with them won’t help anyone.

Tangentially related to not listening – Security Officer X encourages passengers to ask questions if they’re unsure. For example: is mascara a liquid? or what counts as large electronics? He won’t judge – he promises – but “a ten-second conversation now could save a ten-minute bag search further down the line.”

Less stress for everyone, if you ask us.

Another airport security mistake people make often relates to their clothing choices.

If you’re going to an airport, you know you’ll be going through metal detectors and/or scanning equipment. Any items of clothing with large metallic embellishments such as buckles or zips will set alarms ringing, necessitating physical searches. Your comfort is important, but your clothing choices could be holding you up.

Along with clothing, there’s still a chance you might have to remove your footwear, so wear something easy to slip on and off.  Oh, and don’t forget to wear socks – those floors can get dirty fast!

T.S.A. PreCheck at Miami International Airport. Read on to find out how to get through airport security and how to avoid the biggest airport security mistakes.
TSA officer at Miami International Airport | © Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Communication is key

If the metal detector or body scanner goes off and you’re pulled aside for a search, it’s important to disclose absolutely everything. When you’re asked about what’s in your pockets, it’s vital that you are honest and empty your pockets fully – regardless of their contents. Some scanners are simply detecting anything unexpected – essentially, anything that isn’t clothing or a body part. Even a hairband in a pocket can be flagged and activate the scanner alarm, necessitating a physical search.

If you have medical conditions – hidden or otherwise – it’s worth giving yourself plenty of extra time to get through security without having to rush. Security officers are trained to be as discreet and sensitive as possible, and they have procedures in place for just about every conceivable situation. Nevertheless, some conditions can make security more time-consuming. For example, a person with an insulin pump or pacemaker may be subject to a physical search in lieu of scanners and metal detectors which could be damaging to their medical equipment.

Ultimately, X says, the safety of passengers, flight crew, and cabin crew is the most crucial thing: he and his colleagues can’t simply allow a person through security without screening. If a person refuses to be scanned or physically searched, there’s not much he can do – that person will be turned away.

The final solution to the biggest airport security mistakes: pack smart. If your favourite cologne comes in a bottle shaped like a hand grenade, consider distilling it into a travel atomiser for your trip. It’s a little less flashy, but it will also be a little less flash-bangy. Similarly, if your handbag’s closure clasp looks like a knuckle duster, choose a different bag. And it (should) go without saying, but just don’t bother with anything gun-shaped (yes, including water pistols).

If we see something which looks similar to certain items, we have to assume it is that item – we have to eliminate the human error factor. It’s hugely time consuming and delays the entire security lane; it can stop the machines running for ten minutes or more.

X’s best tip to avoid this airport security mistake? When you’re packing your bag, put yourself in the security officer’s shoes. Ask yourself: does – or could – this item look suspicious?

Domestic departure security hall at at Shanghai-Pudong Airport. Read on for more airport security hacks.
Domestic departure security hall at Shanghai-Pudong Airport | © Wengang Zhai c/o Unsplash

In summary

So, let’s recap. How do we avoid making the biggest airport security mistakes?

 

  • Listen to the security staff! They’re not making up the rules for fun – in fact, they don’t make the rules at all. They are, however, duty bound by both their employment contracts and the law to enforce them.
  • Empty your pockets thoroughly. Even tiny things like hair ties and tissues can flag on body scanners and necessitate physical searches, which add additional time to your trip through airport security. When the security officers ask you to empty your pockets into the trays, empty everything out of your pockets.
  • Dress appropriately. Large zips, buckles, and metallic buttons can set off alarms at metal detectors, and if your boots have laces halfway up your legs, they might slow you down if you have to remove your shoes.
  • Take extra time for medical conditions. Disclose your concerns – whether you (or a fellow traveller) are neurodivergent, or you have medical equipment like an insulin pump or an ileostomy pouch. Security officers have procedures to screen you with sensitivity and minimal invasion, but they can only react to what they know.
  • Pack smart. Don’t take items that look like they could be a threat – no nerf guns or water pistols – and make sure you distill liquids into smaller, travel-friendly containers before packing.  You can find more tips for packing your hand luggage here.

Have you been through airport security lately? Tell us your best tips and tricks in the comments!

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