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Thursday, 20 September, 2001, 16:36 GMT 17:36 UK
Holes in US airport security
Armed police
Armed police at Heathrow airport
A BBC News Online reader who travels frequently between the US and UK has raised questions about airport security. Following the attacks in America - how safe is it for travellers flying back to Europe from the United States, and are American airports any safer?

I travel frequently from this airport, but even a week after the attacks, there was no sign of any different security arrangements at the terminal check-in.

HAVE YOUR SAY I was still allowed to take my suitcase and computer case as hand luggage.

There were a couple of women checking tickets to ensure that only passengers were walking through to the departure area, but that was all.

Confiscated objects
The haul of sharp objects collected at Heathrow

I was interested to see how they would treat the pilot standing in front of me. I thought they would have given him closer scrutiny, but they just waved him through.

I had read that British airports were confiscating sharp objects, but the metal detector failed to pick up my Swiss army compact which includes scissors and a separate nail file.

At the x-ray machines, someone was being trained on how to use the machine. He was being told what to look for but what stuck in my mind was that there was a card illustrating all sorts of things that he should be looking for.

I remember being particularly alarmed when the man training him said: "This is what a knife looks like."

Then, I just thought: 'Oh, golly'.

I was expecting my bag to be opened, especially as I was carrying a computer. But they just came down the conveyor and I walked off.

There were no further x-ray machines or additional security, apart from three security guards, but they were just hanging around - chatting.

It couldn't have been further from the pictures I had seen of British police at UK airports - looking vigilant and making their presence felt.

The whole experience was absolutely shocking. I did not feel reassured.

Your comments:

I flew to Canada a few months ago after doing some DIY, forgot I had an extendible Stanley knife in my pocket, and found it when I got to Canada. Nothing picked that up ...
Andy, England

I regularly fly within Southern Africa and go to Europe a few times a year. I can safely say that the security in place even in small airports such as Durban in SA and Bulawayo in Zimbabwe is much tighter than anything I have experienced in Europe (or Canada some years ago). Every bag is x-rayed, full metal detector searches are carried out and (in one instance) a penknife on my keyring was confiscated during an internal flight to Harare. Waiting times are also low (it is possible to check through with hand baggage only 20 minutes before and still be searched, maximum wait I have had with hold baggage is about the same time). If we can get it right in this part of the world, how come the financially better off countries can't in the name of convenience?
Jon, South Africa

On a flight from Maderia to London Gatwick, a passenger was fretting that a pair or nail clippers had been confiscated, and would have to go back to Gatwick the following day to collect them. I'd rather buy a new pair and have a safe flight - we had all been told to put them in the hold baggage!
Jeff, UK

Lets hope none of these people bragging about carry knives on board are stupid enough to actually show it to anyone on the plane. If I saw this I would not hesitate to restrain them to protect my family & possibly cause them some injuries in the process.

No bags opened, no questions, no interest. The security staff were just about awake!

Stephen Heeney, UK
Are people really that stupid to still take object like this on planes. If they can not be responsible enough to control there luggage contents - then they should be banned from air travel for good.
Neil Craig, England

I departed from Gatwick on Wed 12 Sept. Before leaving home, I assured my partner that security measures were probably going to be very good, after the events of the previous day. In fact, I even left home 1 hour earlier because I believed it would take much longer to pass through security checks. What did I find? Nothing! Just the normal bored, tired and ineffectual security checks. No bags opened, no questions, no interest. The security staff were just about awake!
Stephen Heeney, UK

Flying back to London from Barcelona this week I was initially surprised when at check-in we were told that no hand luggage was allowed on board, but with everybody arriving at the gate with nothing more than the bare essentials, I soon realised how much quicker and safer the boarding process can be.
Andreas Liesche, London, UK

Having just travelled from the UK to Norway via Amsterdam I can say that differences were apparent. At London Stanstead I was told that I was unable to take my rucksack (including a laptop) on as carry on so I duly put in the hold. I was told to turn up early for the huge queues when in fact the airport was more empty than normal. Arriving at Amsterdam there was no visible change in what other passengers in transit had. Except a more through passport control. Upon arrival in Bergen I my laptop was missing and is still floating somewhere in Amsterdam due to the increased security measures. My other baggage made it though which makes me wary. I will insist in future to take my laptop (if it is found) on as carry-on.
Mark Sweatman, UK

I just visited Disney world in Florida, which checks fingerprints, which absolutely makes sure that a ticket is not transferred. This is not a time consuming process. Based on today¿s procedure, once you get your boarding pass, no one checks it if it is transferred. Only thing that will assure this is finger print check. It seemed pretty easy. Why can't airlines do it if Disney could do it? They just have to take the finger print when a person checks in and have a detector where person board the plain. A small price to pay as far as I am concerned.
Savita Keole, US

I flew to Ecuador with Continental on the Monday after the attacks from Gatwick, via Houston in Texas. The security at Gatwick was brilliant: Hand luggage was strictly limited to a hand bag sized bag On entering the departure room every single bag was thoroughly searched and every person was checked over by staff. By contrast on reaching the States where I had to go through customs even though in transit, the security was terrible. Expecting a similar treatment to in the UK, there were no questions, no checking of the enormous hand-luggage being carried on, and no body checks. Given the threats America is making of revenge I expected that it would at least be tightening up on its airport security.
Nicola Spencer, England

I was extremely distressed that an abandoned bag in Heathrow was ignored yesterday. I alerted three separate security staff who all claimed it wasn't their job to deal with this specific type of incident. None could direct me to an appropriate person. Despite that, Heathrow had much more of an air of security than Los Angeles at the other end.
Nick Pearce, USA (Brit)

A British friend of mine was travelling on Continental from Newark to London the morning of the WTC attack. Naturally, his flight was grounded and he never did get to London. But his luggage did! A few days later his bag went to London without his being on the plane! And then they sent it back here again "unmanned." I thought that was not supposed to happen after Lockerbie.
Peter, United States

I think we need to recognise that there is a finite amount of security that is possible if we are still to be able to travel regularly. It is all about finding the right balance. This week's hot topic is knives or other blades (nail files etc.) - and quite rightly given the methods of the high-jackers. However, almost ANYTHING can be used as a very effective weapon by people determined to stab or strangle in order to succeed, especially if they are well trained. But is it really reasonable to check for and remove ALL such objects from carry-on baggage? What about mains-leads for computers? Steel propelling pencils? Stockings? Headphones for walkmans? etc. etc. Pick your own tool here. PART of defeating terrorism is carrying on with normal life in the face of these type of attacks. Yes, we must be vigilant, but we must also be able to travel freely as that is how much of the world needs to function.
Tim Burgess, Canada

I flew home from Toronto to Manchester on Sunday after a two day delay. Security at Toronto airport was much tighter than usual as I expected, confiscating any sharp objects that were found. The only thing that amazed me was that when on board the aircraft we were given metal cutlery to eat our meals with, that was just like giving three hundred passengers a weapon each.
Philip Wardle, UK

The checks in Ireland to prevent Foot and Mouth being brought into the country are more stringent than the recent 'improvements' in the security at US airports. Couldn't smuggle a sandwich into Ireland!
Jacqui, UK

Why does everybody think things should be different - the word at the moment is get back to your usual job/routine. What do you think is going to change when the screener at an airport gets paid less than the guys in the fast food outlet across the concourse. I don't understand why the airlines should be bailed out with my tax dollars when they were responsible for the security at airports - and failed.
Paul, USA

We have just travelled back from Schiphol airport and were very surprised at a glaring errors in security. Firstly an 'outsize' luggage cart was left unattended and filled with back-packs, this was at check in. Worse however was the ability to buy knives, cheesegraters etc obvious potential weapons at 'air-side after hand baggage had been through the x-ray machine and searches
David hicks, UK

I am Brit living New York and I¿m a frequent flyer approx. 400,000 miles a year. I have often been appalled at the low level of security at JFK airport. Two memorable times I have set off the metal detector and been sent to an area for a body search, I have found the staff standing around joking and chatting totally oblivious to my presence, after waiting several minutes I have proceeded to claim my baggage without being searched and carried on my journey. I feel I have somehow neglected my duty to report such incompetence.
Paul Thompson,usa

Having just returned from the US, via JFK airport, today, September 20, I would like to voice my concerns over the level of airport security. No questions were asked at check-in, regarding whether or not I was carrying any sharp objects. When my hand baggage went through the scanner, I was asked to turn on my computer, but no search was made of my hand baggage. They were not even making 'spot checks' of hand baggage. I can honestly say I saw no evidence, what ever, of increased security. I am appalled that after shutting down their airspace for several days - and the very evident fear of passengers - the US has made so little progress in improving their security. The airlines are in trouble, the economy generally is in trouble, people will only fly if they feel all that is possible is being done to make flying safer. The US speaks loudly about the appalling attacks on its (and others) citizens, they have to take more responsibility for protecting them and take more action now.
Val Stanczyc, UK

Most answers here are more of the same pejorative comments from the British about what Americans do or don't do so the Brits can feel better about themselves. If you're not checked thoroughly in Portugal or France then it doesn't really matter what you do in Britain. SO WHAT?! This is a world wide problem and if we don't at least secure the cockpits anything that can be used as a weapon will be...
C. Thomas, USA

It is really appalling the things that have been mentioned by travellers from/to US or UK. The airport in New Delhi seemed like a lot of hassle to me when only ticketed passengers are allowed inside the airport terminal, the baggage scanned, x-rayed before check-in, properly sealed with a white tape and airline tag put on it. Then go for check-in, where the airline personnel will ask you thousands of questions about electronic items I have. Once I was asked to demonstrate if it works, even about no. of batteries. Before you get to the door terminal, your hand baggage is x-rayed twice and you are completely frisked. I've never had knives before in my baggage but I'm sure that I would have been asked about it.
Sameer Vijay, India (currently in USA)

Are glass bottles of duty free still allowed. Could they become weapons?
Barry Cannam, England

Once I even had five rounds of .22 rifle ammunition in my bag and it passed through the x-ray without comment!

Michael Brown, Lisbon, Portugal

I flew from Malpensa to Gatwick on the 15th. Access to the flight deck was unrestricted with the door open most of the time. When I raised my concern to the Cabin Director I was told it was not BA policy to keep the door closed or locked and that I should write a letter to BA if I did not agree with their position! BA have lost another customer.
steve thomas, USA

I haven't travelled since the tragedy in the US but I travel every month between the UK and Portugal and airport security (before the attack) at Heathrow and Lisbon would not have prevented the hijackers. Until now I have always carried my Swiss Army knife in my hand baggage and once I even had five rounds of .22 rifle ammunition in my bag (I'd forgotten about it) and it passed through the x-ray without comment! I will fly on Monday back to London and hope to see much improved security.
Michael Brown, Lisbon, Portugal

Just got back from a trip to Amsterdam. In response to a direct request from the airline (BA) via my travel agent, I went to the airport (Gatwick) two hours ahead of departure, and found myself in the lounge for one hour fifty - there was no visible difference in security, other than a very cursory pat-down at the aircraft. Further, the same was evident at Schipol on the way back. All of this was compounded by the UK immigration officer at Gatwick hardly looking up at all at the mass of people passing through the UK and EU channel. It's a disgrace. If we need more/better security then let's have it and let's do it properly. Paying lip service to all of our fears and concerns will not be enough
Bill Torrance, UK

I was flying from Boston Logan to Heathrow and I was amazed that I was only asked to show my passport at check-in. There is seemingly no passport control present, unlike UK airports. My point is that I could have checked in, gone to the toilet where someone could have knocked me out, taken my boarding pass/ticket and walked onto the plane. What a completely shambolic affair. The FAA should be ashamed of themselves!!
Christopher Morris, UK

Two days after the attack I flew from Schiphol to Manchester and the checks also failed to spot a Swiss army knife. On the return leg all my carry on items had to be placed in a see-through carrier bag.
Richard Goddard, Netherlands

Previously I have carried a mechanical cuckoo clock on both US internal and transatlantic flights. God only knows what a mass of cogs looks like on a metal detector

J, England

In complete contrast, I flew from Turkey to the UK on Monday. Our bags were all x-rayed as soon as we entered the airport (never mind checking in). This was done for all people entering the airport building - even people seeing off friends and family. Some young lads had bought Turkish knives and plastic BB guns. These were immediately identified and confiscated. Once we had checked in, we (and our bags) were scanned again going through passport control. If Turkey can do it, why can't the US?
Huw Davies, UK

I haven't flown since the attack but previously I have carried a mechanical cuckoo clock on both US internal and transatlantic flights. God only knows what a mass of cogs looks like on a metal detector but I wasn't asked to open my bag. On another occasion I was carrying a large wooden carving of a Komodo dragon. The assistant at the (very small) US airport peered at her screen and asked me "Do you have a lizard in there?". Again, no request to see further.
J, England

Having just returned from a city break to Lisbon, I was totally not reassured with "additional security measures". My case was X-rayed, taped and returned to me for booking in. As the tape did not cover the opening, I could have put anything into the case afterwards. I was asked if I was carrying any sharp objects but was not checked. On returning home I found in a side pocket of my handbag a Swiss army knife which I had completely forgotten about. At no stage leaving Heathrow or returning from Lisbon was this found. Although a completely innocent oversight on my part, I was amazed that the X ray machines had not picked this up.
Joy Burton, England

I travel regularly between the Netherlands and both the UK and USA. I came back from LA two days ago, and like your reader experienced few checks. I was allowed to board the plane with a laptop and small suitcase without being challenged or asked to switch on any electronic equipment as I am whenever I leave the UK.

My bag was more closely searched when I went into a local theme park

Emma , UK

I travelled back from the US on Monday, and was surprised at the difference between the security in UK and US airports. In the US one American family left an enormous pile of luggage unattended, but even more of a shock was that none of the airport staff were telling the family that they shouldn't be doing that.

My hand luggage was x-rayed as usual, but I was not asked to open my bag for further searches. In fact my bag was more closely searched when I went into a local theme park. I would have much felt safer had my bag been more thoroughly searched, as then I would know that other people's property was receiving the same scrutiny.

The USA security team seemed uninterested and bored

Jim, UK

It was very scary to get on the plane knowing that the extra security we had been promised was not really there.
Emma , UK

I have travelled through airports throughout Europe over the past week and I have seen improvements in the already good security. The attitude of security staff in Heathrow was excellent and the BAA security staff are clearly well trained.

I was searched on two occasions and both searches were carried out very well. The same was true of staff at Stuttgart and Paris, professional staff doing a good job. I feel safe flying in Europe.
Paul Brooks, UK

I flew from Boston Logan three weeks ago. The people operating the scanners were very different to their UK counterparts. The USA security team seemed uninterested and bored, operating a conveyor in the middle of a corridor with just-landed passengers sweeping past either side. USA airports must adopt the disciplined approach of the UK if they want to gain confidence with the public.
Jim, UK

I live and work in the US and travel frequently inside the US and internationally. When I first started to travel in the US I was surprised at how lax security was and still is. My mobile phone is never x-rayed, all that is

I got back from Washington DC on Monday morning. We were appalled at the "security" at Dulles airport - where one of the terrorist had flown out from. Despite extra staff the security measures were farcical.

Chris Woods, England
required is that I press a button to make the screen change! My computer is never checked and the contents of my brief case never scrutinised. There are rubbish/trash cans all over the airports making it very easy for someone to deposit a bomb in them. The security guards are far too relaxed and the police are rarely seen.
Bernard Stuart, USA ex UK

I concur with your reader's experiences. I haven't flown transatlantic yet but the internal US flight security is broadly the same as before, with the sole exception of not allowing without ticket passengers through security.

I have just returned from the UK to the USA. I expected to be severely delayed and face strict security measures at Gatwick airport. At check in there was no difference, at the security check I was asked if I had any knives, scissors, tweezers (!) or nail clippers (!!). I proceeded to the gate and along with several other passengers walked past the sign which said "security, please wait until you are called forward" - because there was no one there. Unchallenged we all arrived at the gate, where with one look at the passport and a check of the boarding pass we were aboard. In the past I have seen security officials questioning passengers thoroughly as to why they are travelling. On the contrary I got a much tougher time at US immigration and customs, where they were asking lots of detailed questions. I would have thought the UK airports and airlines would have been more strict given their usually high standards. When I got home I found my Swiss army compact in my roll-on ! baggage which has a blade, scissors and tweezers all in one - I had been through three security checks. OOOPS!
Steven Goodwin, USA

I cannot believe what I have read above. El Al at Heathrow are unbelievable. It is the most secure airline that I know of and feel the safest on. I thought that all UK airports were adopting the attitude of El Al in the sense that all suitcases should be opened up and checked. El Al has a check in desk for tickets only. You keep your luggage with you at all times and when you go to your departure gate they open your suitcase and then put it through x-ray machines and then you can board your flight. If they are not happy with contents or think some things are suspicious they pull them apart and open things up. It only takes about 10-15 minutes apiece but at the end of the day is it not worth it.
Fiona, UK

See also:

17 Sep 01 | Business
Travelling: Concerned, need advice?
13 Sep 01 | Americas
US eyes armed guards for planes
13 Sep 01 | Business
More disruption for US flights
13 Sep 01 | Americas
No passport, no ticket - no problem
12 Sep 01 | Northern Ireland
Security increased at NI airports
01 Feb 01 | World
Lockerbie 'could happen again'
12 Sep 01 | UK
UK on high security alert
18 Sep 01 | Europe
Europe tightens security
11 Sep 01 | UK Politics
Blair puts UK on security alert
18 Sep 01 | Business
What now for tourism?
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