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Searched, scanned, suspected, subjected to sniffer dogs – is airport security really working?

Security is getting tighter and tighter at our airports – and with the arrival of full-body scanners, it's getting up-close and personal too. Nick Duerden checks in at Gatwick to ask whether all the prodding and poking is really working

Here is a picture that will be all too familiar to anyone who has caught a plane over the past nine years: you arrive early at the terminal for check-in – perhaps earlier than good sense dictates, but that's what the airline demands. The queues appear interminable, but you can just make out security staff requesting that any bottle of liquid under 100ml be removed from hand-luggage and placed in a see-through bag. (Anything over 100ml will have to be binned; tough.) At last, you arrive at an X-ray machine. Here, you remove your coat, jacket, shoes and belt, and any change in your pockets, along with your phone and certain items of jewellery. Only now are you permitted to walk through the scanner; if, as likely as not, it goes off, you will be patted down by a member of security. Then, as long as nothing offensive has been found upon your person, you and your fellow passengers attempt to dress yourselves while juggling your bags.

After these indignities, even 11 hours on a transatlantic flight can seem like sweet relief. But then you reach your destination, and much the same process occurs all over again. And in the wake of the latest airline terrorist attempt, last Christmas Day, when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives hidden under his clothes on a flight to Detroit, it's in the process of becoming even more intrusive: now, we are being asked to tolerate the introduction of full-body scanners and "behavioural profiling". These will surely slow airport traffic even more, if only because so many of us continue to fly: more than 100 million passengers shuffled through Heathrow and Gatwick last year.

It is lunchtime at Gatwick, and the airport is running like clockwork: no delays, no security alerts in progress. The queues are modest, but each new arrival is promptly greeted by police sniffer dogs at check-in. Other policemen maintain a highly visible presence across the terminal's floor, ' fully armed. Over the Tannoy comes the incongruous announcement that a non-denominational church service is about to begin in the North Terminal chapel. All are welcome. Overseeing all this from the South Terminal control centre, and facing a bank of CCTV screens that record every act across every inch of this place, is Geoff Williams, Gatwick's head of security. A former deputy chief of police, it is Williams' job to ensure that a 9/11 never happens on his watch. So far, so good. "Any job comes with its stresses, of course, but we take what we do very seriously here. We are maintaining the public's safety. A very necessary role, these days."

Williams insists that increased security measures don't always result in endless flight delays. On the contrary, he says, Gatwick operates with a pronounced fluidity. "We pride ourselves in being quick and efficient while maintaining absolute safety, and we also endeavour to do it all with a smile on our faces."

This, it transpires, is quite true. Down at Security – that invariable bottleneck which filters passengers from check-in desk to departure gate – officers are going about their tasks with the collective temperament of a morning radio DJ. There is laughter, and many engage in banter with the passengers. "First and foremost," says Williams, "we want people to enjoy the whole process of being in an airport as much as possible, because their holidays start right here. It's important for people to realise that we do not assume everyone to be guilty. Quite the contrary. We assume everyone to be innocent; the vast majority are. We have to go through these checks for obvious reasons, but we want them to remain as unobtrusive as possible, and to delay passengers as little as we can. And mostly we do."

Gatwick took delivery of its full-body scanners this month. Will their introduction prove as controversial as some civil liberties' organisations suggest? Williams' smile is one of lawful confidence. "We hope not."

Manchester airport, a week later. Manchester is one of the UK's most efficient departure points, and proud of it; it has won awards for its efforts. Here, queueing time is limited to a swift eight minutes (though Manchester, it should be noted, is far smaller than Gatwick), and customer satisfaction is high. Full-body scanners have been operational here for several months, initially on a trial basis – and head of customer experience Sarah Barrett has so far registered no passenger complaints. "If anything," she says, "people who have gone through them have been surprised how quick and easy it all is. It actually speeds up the whole process, which, ultimately, is what everybody wants." In the first month of use, the scanners registered a 75-per-cent approval rate. That approval rate has now reached the high 90s. "Passengers just want to feel safe and secure, don't they?" Barrett says.

And with good reason. Although Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian Muslim, was on a terrorist watch-list, and had even been denounced by his own father for being a radical, he was able to purchase a one-way ticket with cash from Lagos bound for Detroit, with a stopover at Amsterdam, and was granted unimpeded passage in his journey. The explosives he had concealed within his underpants went undetected at both the departure point and at Amsterdam's Schiphol. As his plane approached the runway at Detroit, he attempted to detonate the bomb. He had, however, packed insufficient explosives, and failed.

Yet worldwide aviation plunged into panic, as the threat level was raised once again to severe. The situation worsened shortly after the incident, when a passenger at New York's Newark Airport used an exit instead of an entrance. The response to his error prompted so many flight delays, it made the national news in America. Remarkably, a couple of days later, the drunken antics of a passenger aboard a Hawaiian Airlines flight prompted the US National Guard to scramble two F-15 jet fighters, in the event that one lone drunk turned out to be someone far more sinister (he didn't).

Here, Home Secretary Alan Johnson swiftly announced that our own response to the Detroit incident was to ramp up pat-down searches of all passengers, the introduction of more sniffer dogs in terminals, and a concerted increase in hand-luggage inspections. Johnson warned that flights would face inevitable delays. He also added that full-body scanners would soon become commonplace at all UK airports.

An overreaction? The scanners cost about £100,000 each, there are fears about invasion of privacy and even Johnson admits that there's only a 50-60 per cent chance that these scanners might have detected the explosives on Abdulmutallab. What's more, says Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International magazine, it's typical of an industry that is reactive rather than pro-active when it comes to security measures.

"What makes people upset in life?" he asks. "Queues, delays, being lied to, having your integrity challenged. But that is exactly what happens to us in airports these days. Our integrity is challenged at check-in, again at immigration, then customs, then at the gate. It's ridiculous." Baum is also critical of the lack of security pre-check-in, which he suggests makes it the logical next choice for a terrorist target. "I fear we'll have to wait until a suicide bomber blows himself up in the terminal before anyone starts to address the need to eradicate those long, long queues."

All of which should make even the prospect of air travel even more terrifying. "It does seem odd," says Lonely Planet's European travel editor Tom Hall, "that we are now encouraged to turn up early to enjoy lunch at Gordon Ramsay's restaurant [at Heathrow's Terminal 5], while at the same time being reminded that someone may be trying to blow us up."

So, just how protracted – and perilous – will air travel become in the next few years? Gatwick's Williams predicts that improvements in technology should help safeguard us, but Baum remains convinced that airports have got their emphasis wrong. "There should be a continual process of passenger observation from the moment we arrive at the airport, not merely at specific security points," he says, "and based not solely on technology, but also on more intelligent profiling."

This does not mean, he insists, focusing on predominantly young, black and Asian men, but anyone who doesn't meet a set of certain criteria for air travellers. (And those contentious criteria, airport security officials insist, are necessarily confidential.) Baum adds that he finds it bewildering that we are still able to purchase alcohol in glass bottles after we've gone through the checkpoints. Not only can glass, when broken, become a weapon, but certain liquids to be found on the shelves at Duty Free can also be used for explosives. "I'm not going to go into detail for obvious reasons," he says. "But it does need to be addressed."

Back at Gatwick, the mid-afternoon queues are lengthening There is still laughter here but, at times, the carefully maintained bonhomie feels forced. Of course it does. Nobody really wants to be doing all this, do they? "It is a perennial source of irritation, all this increased security," agrees Hall. "But it's funny, I find that the moment we are through to the departure lounge, to all the shops and restaurants, we forget everything we've just endured. It's all been so unpleasant that I suppose we have to, right?"

Simon Calder asks... are we any safer now than we were 40 years ago?

In the late 1970s, the security of millions of air travellers was in the hands of people like me. As a student, I applied for a holiday job frisking people at Gatwick Airport. After a cursory interview and a couple of days of training ("an improvised explosive device looks like this", as my pal Don and I were shown a Tupperware box with wires sticking out), we were given uniforms including a badge that announced us to be "Vigilant and Valiant", and deployed airside at the UK's leading holiday airport.

During the long, hot summer of 1976, my sole discovery was a Camping Gaz cylinder; I was sent out on to the apron to discharge it, and handed the shell back to the unimpressed owner.

These cursory searches were a relatively recent innovation. Three years earlier, as a cleaner for British Airtours, I could cycle to the office on the edge of the runway, and during my break, wander unchallenged around the hangars.

Yet it was by no means an age of innocence: the IRA's campaign on mainland targets was under way, and we were instructed to report any suspicious literature we discovered while searching the bags of Belfast-bound passengers. Today, training and technology are far more sophisticated. But I am not sure that, as a traveller, I feel significantly safer.

The assumption that every passenger is a terrorist until they can demonstrate otherwise is still intellectually troubling. I would far rather resources were deployed to focus on the more suspicious passengers – of whom I am a prime candidate for further scrutiny – and by someone more committed than a student on a holiday job.

Simon Calder is senior travel editor of 'The Independent'