CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Airport insecurity

How good are the systems at our international airports?

First drafted on flight BA633 from Athens to London and finished on BA093 to Toronto a week later. Dispatched via a free wi-fi service.

Before 9/11, I regularly travelled the planet with a full toolkit as well as other objects that are now classified as contraband.

After 9/11, an occasional lapse of memory meant my hand baggage continued to contain items no longer permitted in the cabin. I was surprised when these offending objects went undetected on international and internal flights.

Exclusive column: The Naked CIO

See what this CIO really thinks…

The Naked CIO: Unequal opportunities

The Naked CIO: The true cost of IT

The Naked CIO: Crunch time for large projects

The Naked CIO: Boardroom stereotypes

The Naked CIO: IT staff disloyalty

The Naked CIO: Cut the bull

So, what had its roots in a memory lapse gradually mutated into an experiment - to see how long I could go without these items being detected.

The big question in my mind has always been just what can be detected and how much safer are we? Like the rest of you, I have stood in line as my luggage is X-rayed, followed by the occasional arms-outstretched pat down.

At a modest estimate I have passed through well over 200 airport terminals - and hence their security systems - right across the planet including Australia, Europe, the Far East, the Middle East and Scandinavia, since 9/11.

For speed and convenience of travel I never check a bag into the hold and have found ways of living with one or two smaller bags in the carry-on regime that we regular travellers have all grown to love.

So, continuously travelling with scissors, nail file, tweezers and my full mini-electrical tool kit I have traversed the planet unchallenged and unimpeded.

Well, that's not quite true. Nothing happened at all for five years after 9/11. I enjoyed trouble-free travel - no one spotted a thing. But then Toronto staff became the first to find my nail scissors, which were promptly confiscated.

A year or so later Paris airport personnel also succeeded in locating my scissors but they measured the length of the blade and decided they were OK and handed them back. Neither airport's security systems spotted my nail file, tweezers or toolkit.

Not until last week did anyone spot the biggie. At last my toolkit was spotted, located and confiscated. And so the biggest security prize to date goes to Athens.

Unfortunately, Athens staff were thrown off the scent by the enormity of their find and overlooked my scissors, nail file and tweezers. And so I can't really award them the gold medal. But it was nonetheless an impressive piece of work. Well done, Athens.

This morning I experienced a second detection success and my nail scissors were confiscated at Heathrow T4. But again they missed everything else.

So what might we conclude? If there is any improvement in detection rates at airports, it seems to be marginal to date. And so are we flying any more safely?

To be honest my pen is much more of a weapon than anything else in my baggage, not to mention the metal knife and fork I just used for my breakfast in the airline lounge, or indeed the bottles of spirits I'm now allowed to purchase duty free.

We have always relied on the vast majority of people being good and honest - and the reality is we still do. The new systems and equipment deployed and being developed to pre-qualify us before we even get to the airport give an added reassurance.

But the reality is the detection of specific objects by scanners has some way to go before it approaches 100 per cent reliability, and full automation is absolutely essential. As always, to spot banned items we are dependent on people's alertness, concentration and diligence, which are all extremely variable.

Incidentally, my airport security experiment is now suspended.

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox