Navigating through Airport Security

The original concept of this article conceived towards the end of my marathon journey vacation in 2009, which ended as I arrived to London Heathrow to see a rather disturbing sign posted just prior to the Immigration check, with these unwelcoming words...

"Tougher checks take longer"

My instant reaction was to say to myself "Only in a disorganized system with insufficient trained staff and advanced equipment to manage". Besides most travellers never asked for the extra checks and many believe that a more intelligent approach could be adopted, which would avoid every senior citizen and child being over processed. Moreover there are other less intrusive ways to counter the liquid threat.

The above statement sums up the curse of travelling today, which treats civilized decent people like cattle and empowers often low-paid Security staff to control and check us like convicted criminals. Security staff are notoriously rude in many airports across the world and the whole experience is a huge inconvenience apart from being unpleasant.

The sad reality, is that there is no way to completely turn this around as a mere traveller, however there are a number of measures you can take to minimize the inconvenience and emotional damage. This article gives you a few pointers…

Immigration, Customs and Security all treat anything out of the ordinary as suspicious, so as an otherwise innocent traveller, make sure you do not wear or do anything that attracts unwarranted attention, or else it could increase your inconvenience risk factor, meaning you could be searched or questioned, often seemingly from the standpoint that you are guilty until you prove innocence.

Here are some classic mistakes that people make...

Never wear sunglasses within the confines of the airport or especially when coming into contact with officials of any creed. Open eye contact on first impact is important to create the right impression of openness, so if you wear sunglasses regardless of what the weather is like outside and even if the airport is primarily a glass structure, it will only serve to indicate that you may potentially want to hide something.

On the topic of eye contact when passing through customs do not make direct eye to eye contact with officials and do not look away either. Instead focus your vision on the exit or way out. For Security officials take the same stance as for customs and focus on the pathway to the exit. For Immigration officials maintain eye contact when they are checking your passport, but of course do not stare. Similarly at the check-in maintain eye contact too and follow the directions indicated in the conversation section below.

In general when walking around zones where officials frequent, maintain your vision upwards above head height, but not to the sky. Avoid looking down and looking around too much unless it’s at indication signs or flight listing screens.

When walking in the monitored zones of potential Immigration, Customs or Security checks, it is strongly advisable to never walk too quickly or for that matter too slowly either. Reason being that irregular walking activity will be considered as unusual, meaning that you will be targeted for further questioning. It happened to me once! I arrived to Miami from Venezuela and urgently had to collect my luggage, pick up a car and drive to Orlando (4 hours away) for a meeting. Mindful of the fact there are generally long queues to pass through US Immigration, I naturally rushed from the plane to the Immigration area. A plain clothed officer stopped me in my tracks and took me aside for questioning. Of course I was innocent, but it took 20 minutes of interrogation style questioning to demonstrate the obvious, which lost my place in the queue and subsequently caused an hour wait at the Immigration, as many flights arrived simultaneously just after mine. I was forced to learn the hard way!

With respect to posture, its best not to bury your head in the ground and look down too much, as it’s like showing you are avoiding something. Try to show reasonably good posture confidence by walking upright without slouching, which shows you are open and not nervous about anything.

Needless to say, you should not wear anything weird, wacky, offensive or overly colorful that attracts unwarranted attention to yourself. Your clothing should be conservative and leaning towards smart casual, always blending in with the flight you are taking. For example if you are on a business flight to New York and you are dressed like a Japanese Tourist with cameras hanging form your neck or a new age traveller, your percentage risk of being stopped will be far greater than otherwise. In contrast if you purchased a Charter flight from London Gatwick to Orlando with Thomson Fly for example and you are dressed in a suit and tie, again you are likely to be stopped. Many customs officials are already scanning you at the baggage reclaim via cameras or even directly, depending upon the airport.

I once flew to Orlando for a business meeting from London Gatwick dressed in a suit as I had to meet the contact at the airport. Sure enough I was stopped and questioned!

Here its important to know when to speak and when shut up! Generally when dealing with officials its best not to stimulate any kind of conversation, so that you are not subject to unnecessary automatic cold profiling. If an Immigration officer, Customs official or Security guard, asks you a question then answer it honestly, but in as few words as possible. Do not chat or volunteer additional information, as it may open you up to yet more questions. It seems that many officials possess the skill of making one feel like a criminal in their tone of voice and body language, so don’t prolong the agony. Officials have the power to detain you, embarrassingly uncover all your personal possessions for all to see and generally make life difficult depending where you are on the planet, so the less said the better.

At the check-in, it’s a completely different case scenario. Here you need to be chatty! If you would like to get an upgrade or a good seat, your goal is convince the check-in assistant that you are the ideal person to upgrade. As you approach the desk open conversation with a broad smile and ask how are you today? Then comment on what you see. If it’s busy, show empathy for their work etc. Ask key questions like is the plane full? Is it on time? Are there lines at the security? If you get a negative response (note that you should be seeking negatives to demonstrate your empathy) like yes the plane is totally packed, do not moan, show understanding and be extra nice, as your chances of getting to the business seats just increased. Do not be afraid to politely ask; are there any free seats up front? If the plane is delayed, the check-in assistant cannot do anything about it, so be kind, as it may help you gain some emotional leverage if your baggage is just a little overweight or to obtain a seat in the EXIT row.

Apart form the US Immigration experience whereby all visitors have to leave fingerprints and have their pictures recorded, by far the worst part of traveling through an airport is via the dreaded Security check. Here are some tips to minimize the damage…

1. Wear slip on shoes with no metal buckles or tips
In the US, UK, Middle East and parts of Asia where you are required to take off your shoes, it will make life easier to slip them on and off. No metal parts on your shoes will avoid the alarm going off, to prevent taking your shoes off in many parts of Europe, where it is not automatically compulsory.

2. Wear a Jacket and keep your personal items there
Your Jacket can securely store your Mobile, Passport, Wallet, Coins, Watch and other metal items. You can put your Jacket through the X-Ray scanner in a tray with all your items safe in one place. Theft at airports in the Security area is commonplace in some countries, so this is an important counter measure. The deeper your pockets the better, especially those with zips or buttons. My travel Jacket is custom-made for extra Security.

3. Wear comfortable partly elasticized or stretch trousers
By doing this you avoid wearing a belt, which you would otherwise have to take off and put on again.

4. Prepare in advance your liquids in a see through bag
You could lose valuable places at the entrance of the Security queue if this bag is not prepared in advance. Write in a marker pen 100ml on all your liquid bottles, to show you know the rule.

5. Use a Laptop cover
Do not let people see your Laptop! By using a skin cover you protect your Laptop from scratches and it prevents thieves easily seeing what make it is. Apple Mac and Sony Vaio are in greatest demand from opportunist thieves.

In essence your core objective should be to avoid dressing and undressing, the hassle of belts and tying shoelaces, as all your attention should be focused on being vigilant about your personal valuables and avoiding extra inconvenient Security checks.

I do not expect the airport experience to get better any time soon, so I hope the above tops come in useful. When one takes 100 flights a year, such measures take the negative edge of the process.

Travel safe and be prepared.

Grant Holmes
Editor, Perpetual Traveller


  1. just linked this article on my facebook account. it’s a very interesting article for all.

    Immigration to Australia


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