During recent travels, Triple J Brekkie co-host Liam Stapleton had a confronting experience. "As my bag was going through the airport security scanner, I was looking at the screen showing the contents of the bags and I could hardly believe my eyes when I spotted a snub-nosed handgun in the bag behind mine." Stapleton says that before he'd had time to react, the security guard seemed to click onto the screen and the gun disappeared.
"At this point I'm thinking, 'Hell, is the old lady behind me an air marshall? Is that why she's packing heat? Or perhaps the security system pops contraband on the screens to test airport security staff?' Turns out it's the latter. After chatting about it on Triple J Brekkie, a listener with airport security background called in to confirm that the security systems regularly test the people monitoring screens by putting false contraband images up."
While unable to comment on the exact nature of the testing (whether actual items are placed in dummy bags, or images are generated on screen) airport security expert Dr John Coyne of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says screeners at Australian airports are constantly being tested.
And that, he says, should be something Australians welcome, even if it might prove a little unsettling should a member of the general public see one of those tests, such as Stapleton did.
"While they rotate the security operators out on a regular basis, it's easy to imagine how, day in day out, looking at that screen, you could be mesmerised and have white line fever," says Coyne.
"They are deliberately testing the system to ensure the travelling public is safe and the mechanisms are working. It's also around competencies, vulnerabilities, individual operators, and are they well enough trained."
That's a point that attracted discussion in the United States, when the TSA (Transport Security Administration) testing data was released.
Nearly 4000 firearms were found in carry-on luggage across the US in 2017, plus some oddities such as a knife concealed inside a stick of deodorant in a carry-on bag at Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX and a stun gun disguised as a tube of lipstick at Baltimore–Washington International.
But stats released at the end of 2017 revealed airport screeners failed to detect weapons more than 70 per cent of the time in undercover tests. That was an improvement from the 95 per cent from the test two years prior, a result that prompted major changes in training and procedures.
In that light, it's no surprise Coyne believes the local testing regime, " … is not something to be afraid of. Rather than being upset about this, Australians should be saying, 'That's great, that's my government at work. They're testing operators on day-to day-basis and looking for things that can do us harm'. Security is not a set-and-forget thing. I would be more alarmed if the government wasn't testing."
And after all, he says, it's the world we now live in, especially travellers, who pass through airports which are notorious targets. "It is the reality," he says, but urges travellers to adopt the old "be alert but not alarmed" attitude from the Howard years. "As cliched as that became, travel isn't as safe as it once was, and though you're still more likely to be killed by lightning as an Australian than a terrorist, you should be alert at the airport – but without being a panic merchant."
So if panic's not the best plan, what should you do, should you happen to spot something suspicious on the screen and say, the security officer does not appear to pick up?
Coyne suggests the flying public is also part of security system – that we should be willing to report anything suspicious.
"Put it this way: if you think you see a bowie knife in a bag, do you want it stopped before the owner can have the bowie knife in their hand again? If you see something that isn't quite right, approach the nearest security person. We all have a role to play in society."