Is Australian airport security sensibly cautious or overly neurotic?

Of all the hassles and annoyances that come with the airport experience, there is one that bugs me the most: the random swabs for explosives. But I have a strategy for avoiding it. And it involves my belt.

See, the thing you want to ensure is that the swabbing person at the end of the security process is already busy pointlessly swabbing someone else when you wander past after you've collected all of your belongings from the X-ray machine. 

This has to be one of the hardest countries in the world to get into – and that's even for our own citizens.

My plan is to keep an eye on them as my hand luggage appears. Are they already busy with someone? Then you scoop all your things up in your arms, proceed past the swabbing station as quickly as you can and sort everything out on one of the little tables behind them.

Is the swabbing person standing around waiting for their next victim? Then I take my time putting my belt back on in the security line (trust me, I've had plenty of airport time to think about this). It will only be a few seconds before another passenger barges past me and is nabbed by the swabbing guy, doomed to an unwanted minute or so of having their bags and person rubbed with the magical explosives wand. 

And I'm free.

It's not that I have anything to hide. It's also not that a minute of my life would really make a huge difference if it was lost to Australia's overly cautious approach to airport security. It's just that travel involves many a queue and many a hold-up – I'm keen to avoid any that I possibly can. 

The X-ray scanners are impossible to miss. The explosives swabs are not. Quite.

And anyway, are they really necessary? There are very few countries that actually do this. The United States does it, but you won't find it in every airport. It seems to happen on an arbitrary basis. Same deal in Canada. And in the United Kingdom, where biometric screening has been introduced, swabs of hand luggage and clothing don't appear to be a permanent feature at all.

And yet Australia goes gangbusters for it, domestic or international. 


It's impossible to get solid figures, but I'd love to know how many would-be terrorists have been caught with this system. Maybe it's just a few really dumb ones. Maybe, as I suspect, it's none. And maybe you'd argue that a single wannabe terrorist caught at some point would render the whole system worthwhile and I should just pipe down and take my swabbing like a gentleman. 

But I'd say the vast, vast majority of people being caught in the Australian government's high-tech airport security web would be forgetful gardeners who haven't washed their hands (as happened to a friend of mine recently – she was locked up for an hour and a half with fertiliser on her fingers). 

The whole thing seems more a case of security agencies appearing to be doing something, rather than actually doing something useful.

But Australia has always been a bit over-the-top when it comes to security at our airports. This has to be one of the hardest countries in the world to get into – and that's even for our own citizens.

I've only ever been forced into a single-file line on the air bridge while disembarking a plane and yelled at to remain calm while sniffer dogs ran up and down copping a whiff of everyone once, and that was in Sydney. I've only ever had my bag emptied and some items split apart with scissors in the search for drugs once, and that was in Sydney. I've only had to queue at quarantine for more than an hour once, and that was in Melbourne.

Plenty of countries have done away with paper immigration forms, including the US (which, admittedly, has you enter your details online before you fly, which is good for two years' worth of entries), but not Australia. Fly into most European countries and there's no form to complete. Fly into Iran without a visa and there's still just a small piece of paper to fill out.

But arrive in Australia as a citizen and you've got immigration, customs and Ebola forms to forms to worry about before you'll be allowed in.

(On that note, a fantastic change to Australia's security network has been the recent advent of someone at the airport whose job it is to collect those Ebola forms that we've all filled out. For the first few months you just wandered out of the terminal still clutching them and wondering when the disease was likely to take hold.)  

And then there are the explosives swabs, which can even happen, randomly and somewhat bizarrely, Australian airport security sensibly cautious or overly neurotic? after you've flown and disembarked the aircraft. 

Those are impossible to avoid. For the regular swabs, however, there's always the trick with your belt. 

Do you think Australian airport security is sensibly cautious or overly neurotic? Leave a comment below.