U.S.A .Baggage Inspection
By - A professional in the customs and security field who wishes to remain anonymous.
As Background: Beginning on January 1, 2003, ALL baggage checked in for transport on flights originating in the U.S. are to be screened for explosives/explosive devices. Different methods of screening are employed at different airports. Different methods are employed at the same airport.
Methods Used To Screen Luggage
These are the three methods used:
Explosive Detection Systems - The min-van-sized machines which you see in some airport terminals. These machines may be in the public areas near the check-in counters or in the bellows of a terminal where baggage is routed to different aircraft (out of view of the public). These machines "look" for components of explosive devices: detonators, timers, power sources, and main charges (such as dynamite, C4, Semtex). Items with certain densities will cause the EDS machines to show potential "threats".
Explosive Trace Detectors - Small machines about the size of a microwave oven which "sniff" for traces of explosives. This is done through analysis of samples taken on a cloth or other media and placed in the machine.
Visual/Hand Examination - The opening of a piece of luggage and examining the contents.
Ideally, all of these types of screening take place in view of the passenger who has checked the bag. However, in some locales this is not possible at this time (and may not be in the foreseeable future).
What To Expect - Airport Security
In those airports where EDS machines are utilized, your bag may be put through for an "x-ray" type examination. The bag will not be opened for further inspection if no potential threats are observed and it will be cleared for placement aboard an aircraft.
It is important to note that about 15 to 20 percent of checked bags reveal a possible threat. So, if your bag is identified by the machine and it must be examined, don't feel "targeted"; be glad you don't have contraband drugs in it (or if you do, you better start running).
If your bag is identified as requiring a further examination, it WILL be opened (with or without you present). If the bag is locked, you will be asked for the combination or key. If you are not there, it will be opened by force or by cutting off a lock (such as a small padlock). More about this problem later and how to minimize your concern.
Not all bags will be examined in the EDS machines. This is because they can only process about 130-150 bags per hour. So, most bags will be examined using the ETD machines and visual inspection. This is done, in most all cases, in an area adjacent to the check-in counters. Have your keys ready, if the bags are locked. (It will make the process go a little quicker.)
The bags will be "swiped" on the outside and the media analyzed. They may also be subjected to a limited or full examination of the contents. These examinations are done almost completely on a random basis. Airport screeners use a chart which randomly selects passengers not already identified by a data base as being selected. (I'll mention that briefly below).
Basically, they follow a chart which says (for instance) that Passenger Number One's bags will be only sampled on the outside of the bag. Passenger Number Two's bags will only be sampled on the outside, Passengers Three, Four, and Five will be given a limited examination, Passengers Six and Seven will be given a complete examination of the contents. This chart does not repeat itself in any specific order. It is blind to ethnicity, race, who you are, monied or not, etc.
Your bags will be screened by the local protocols which are in conformance with the national standards. Bags which pass these examinations will be cleared for the aircraft without any further examination.
It is noted that the checked luggage of some travelers will be given a 100% examination regardless of the chart noted above. These are passengers who, for some reason, have been identified by the airline's computer system. I traveled extensively within the U.S. in the last 5 months of 2002. My luggage was almost always thoroughly checked. I had one-way tickets; I had made reservations within the previous 24-48 hours.
Minimize Your Time At Screening Points
•To make the screening process of your bags easier on everybody, first have your bags unlocked. You can ask the screener to lock your bag upon completion of the examination. S/he will.
- Pack your bag/suitcase so that items with any density to them will be
easily seen upon opening the bag/suitcase. Items which show threats on an
ETS screen will be directly examined, and in most cases will result in the
termination of the screening process on that piece of luggage if the
screener is satisfied that the item identified is harmless.
Items that can cause "concern" for the ETS include things like chocolate, batteries, cans/bottles of some food items, thick-soled shoes/boots, shoes with metal rods in them, golf balls, and stacks of binders with paper/plastic in them. Pack so that paper is not stacked. Place shoes away from each other, if possible. Clothes are not a problem. They will not be perceived as a threat. (Only metal buttons and zippers will show up and they will not normally show up as a "threat".)
- Remember that once your bag is delivered to the screener, you will not
be able to take control of it again. Therefore, do not put any undeveloped
film in your checked bags as the ETS machines will likely damage it or
destroy any images captured on it (same for any other light-sensitive
material such as photo paper).
Check your pockets and make sure they and your carry-on bags are clean of any sharp items which might be confiscated at the passenger checkpoints. Put those items in your checked bags before the screening process begins.
Okay, so your bag may be searched without you present and the bag is locked. It is unlikely that the screeners will page you and wait for you to be escorted through checkpoints, stairways and tunnels before an examination. So, this is my advice. (This is a "do as I do")
Use soft-sided luggage with a zipper that you can put a cheap padlock on. Let's face it, the cheap locks on luggage are only good to deter honest people from going astray anyway. Don't use luggage that has combination locks or key locks that might have to be pried open.
Lock your bag. But before closing it and locking it, do this. Put an extra open padlock in a large Manila envelope inside your luggage so that it will be seen as soon as the screener opens the piece of luggage. Keep the key in your wallet or some other place you can get to it later. On the envelope, in writing, ask the screener to replace the destroyed lock with the one in the envelope. (If the bag isn't opened, you can save it for your next trip.) These locks, as you know are pretty cheap ... 2-3 bucks and worth the piece of mind if nothing else.
Have a good trip