Airport and Checkpoint Security – a guide to “pat-downs”


Checkpoint security, like airport security, is a known concept to most of us, if not from own experience then from TV, the movies, newspapers and the internet. Agencies like the TSA (Transport Security Administration) in the US and a whole bunch of private companies in other countries (most notably Securitas) operate checkpoint security and airport security measures – not only in airports, but also in seaports and other locations where screening entering persons to ensure the safety of their presence is required.

Most people will have gained their experience with checkpoint security at either an airport or at their workplace – these days securing the workplace is a big priority for companies that either handle sensitive information, equipment or assets like money, valuable metals or technology. Or all of the above. There’s also the issue of workplace violence, of course.

Checkpoint security is a tried and tested method for controlling persons entering and/or exiting a facility or area. The consept is based upon a single entry/exit scheme, where everyone wishing to enter the controlled area must pass through a single access point. The access point may be moved, of course, but it must remain the only point where people can enter.
Note here that e.g. airports will have one entrance for passengers/staff and one for vehicles.

Guide to Pat-Downs and Checkpoint Security:

The standard layout of a security checkpoint is as follows;
1 – ID. Persons wishing to enter will have to identify themselves in some manner or other. usually this is either a passcard of some sort – like a boarding pass or a personal ID card for the company. It might be just a personal ID card, like a drivers license or a passport.

2 – Technosecurity. Bags, jackets etc. will be screened by technological aids. This, at an airport or seaport will uually include an x-ray scanner, an “itemizer” (a device that will take trace samples off a surface and detect drugs, explosives, etc) and a metal detector portal. Contrary to what some believe – gold, silver, platinum and other precious metals are metals. As their definition hints at. Precious metals. As such, they will be detected by the metal detector portal.

3 – The human element. A checkpoint security scheme needs a human element. When the person entering the checkpoint has passed the metal detector, a human security officer will be waiting, and depending on both his or her own judgement and the whims of modern random selection metal detector portals will perform a “pat-down” on the person entering.
A pat-down will be performed when the person entering is either selected by the technological aids or if he or she is exhibiting signs that demand a closer look. The security officer will not allow anyone to refuse to be checked – according to legal precedence and regulations, a person can not refuse the procedure once he or she has submitted to the checkpoint.

When the person is cleared by the human element, he or she is free to enter the facility or area.


General guidelines for pat-downs is that they are supposed to be performed by security officers of the same sex as the person being screened. This rule can be set aside if dire need arises. The person who is being screened will receive detailed instructions from the security officer about what to do – and what not to do – and should remain calm at all times. The procedure is, in fact, intrusive to most people, and though the security officer will be more or less desensitized to it, he or she will also be uncomfortable breaking the privacy barrier of the passenger or “subject”. That is just another reason for the subject to be calm and compliant so the search can be completed in the least amount of time and discomfort possible.

The search procedure varies from country to country, and indeed culture differences occur. The basic procedure is as follows:

1 – Outline. The officer will trace the subject’s outline from right shoulder, down to the right leg, up between the legs and down the left leg. From there up to the left shoulder. The arms of the subject will be held out, so that the outline tracing is as easy as possible. The search is to be made with both a hand and a handheld metal detector.

2 – “Painting” the subject. After the outline is cleared, the officer will “paint” the subject with his or her hand and a handheld metal detector. This is done in a set pattern, usually a large M shape from the bottom of the subject’s right leg, up to the shoulder, down to the belt, up to the left shoulder and down the left leg. “Painting” the subject’s back side will also include a check of the hair and any collar on the clothing.

3 – Shoes and feet. Lastly, the shoes will in most cases be removed – in many locations, regulations state that shoes must be removed if the person is selected for a pat-down. The shoes will normally be sent through the x-ray screening machine and the soles of the subject’s feet is visually inspected, and also checked with the handheld metal detector.

All done!

For a good reason why security officers do pat-downs, see this post by the TSA!

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