BODY SEARCH: the art of the pat-down

Body search: the art of the pat-down

The airline passenger’s perspective is quite simple – they wish to fly from point A to point B. However, this requires undergoing security screening at the airport. For most travellers, this is a necessary evil and is accepted as the price we must pay for our own protection, yet for some travellers, security procedures are stressful, annoying or even humiliating; this can create tensions between passengers and security officers. Most people feel a sense of discomfort when they know they must be touched by an unknown person – a reasonable reaction when one’s personal space is violated. However, passengers will typically only see this from their own perspective. Arkadiusz Kotela discusses the various challenges faced from the other side of the screening process – that of the aviation security screener.

Let’s paint a picture of an unfortunate scenario which could happen at any airport: extreme weather conditions have forced delays to all flights, passengers are crowding into the terminal building and everyone is getting more and more frustrated. Each passenger wants to board as soon as possible, find their seat and peacefully proceed with their journey; the security screening process is the last thing many passengers want to experience at this point in time. The tension created by this situation can lead to confrontation during the security screening process in which the security screener can face the brunt of passengers’ negative reactions.

Sophisticated technology at today’s airports help to identify prohibited or restricted items on the passenger or in their luggage, but there remains a requirement to conduct an individual screening of each passenger to resolve alarms and for those selected for random physical search. From the airport security viewpoint, the physical examination creates several challenges. Firstly, the body search requires collaboration between the passenger and the aviation security screener. It needs to be a bilaterally respectful relationship but, given the above circumstances, this does not always occur. Social psychologists have studied this process and results from a study in the Philippines in 2018 have shown that more than half the respondents reported being uncomfortable during a physical airport search.

“…a disadvantage of using gloves is that the screener is required to apply more pressure during the pat-down as the gloves negatively impact the screeners sense of touch…”

‘It was evident that there are five typical emotional reactions to airport security screening processes. Forty-five per cent of travellers felt frustrated upon undergoing a security screening process. On a positive note, 26% of the respondents felt relaxed, and 16% have understood processes being implemented by OTS. Other negative reactions surfaced were fear (5%) and humiliation (8%)’. (Jonathan D. Maliwat; Five Typical Emotional Reactions to Airport Security Screening: A Case Study; Psychology Research, December 2018, Vol. 8, No. 12, 594-602).

The passenger’s psychological reaction is the first challenge faced by the screener – how do you turn an uncomfortable situation around and gain the cooperation of the passenger who is being physically searched? An informative approach by the screener may help; providing a verbal explanation which describes the steps being taken during a physical search whilst physical indications of the movements to be made are demonstrated will help the passenger understand the physical body search process. Coupling this explanation with relevant signage will help the passenger to understand what is about to happen.

Understanding the process allows the passenger to become more comfortable and receptive to screening procedures. Communication is a crucial element in achieving positive engagement with the passenger. Security officer training is critical and with well-designed training content which develops their customer service skills, as well as conflict management techniques for dealing with passengers’ frustrations, the security officer will become equipped with the essential tools and skills to help de-escalate a developing conflict.

The airport environment is also a factor in shaping passengers’ perspectives. Airports mitigate risk by putting in place various security measures with each airport defining its own strategy based on its risk assessment and threat analysis outcomes. When we look at airports located in a high risk or hostile locations, we may observe more security layers through which the passenger has to pass in comparison to those in low risk regions. Many passengers passing through these locations will be unfamiliar with the procedures at these airports and will have to undergo several security checks, including successive, thorough physical searches, because certain policies require a 100% physical body search. Understandably, the number of frustrated passengers at these airports dramatically increases, causing friction between passengers and screeners. This brings us to the challenge discussed earlier but adds a further consideration – how to combine more restrictive security procedures with the time constraints associated with air travel and, particularly during periods of peak flow? The cooperation between air carriers and airport authorities in informing the passengers about the security procedures to be expected undoubtedly reduces passengers’ irritation and helps security officers to conduct physical body searches smoothly. The environment created at the security checkpoint is key to reducing unnecessary conflicts and increasing the effectiveness of the pat-down.

“…it is recommended that the security officer use the inside of their hands when covering non-sensitive areas…”

Zips bra clips and metallic buttons do not normally cause alarms
Zips bra clips and metallic buttons do not normally cause alarms

There are some other concerns we should also consider; firstly, should gloves be used or not? Using gloves increases both protection and hygiene for the screener and the passenger. However, a disadvantage of using gloves is that the screener is required to apply more pressure during the pat-down as the gloves negatively impact the screeners sense of touch – this may lead to passenger complaints. Moreover, some passengers may ask the screener to change their gloves before conducting the pat-down, requiring the checkpoint to be equipped with enough gloves. Lastly, screeners should be aware that some passengers will suffer allergies to latex. From the security providers perspective, the issue is easy to solve by providing access to substitutes such as vinyl or nitrile gloves, but each of these replacements brings pros and cons. Overall, though, glove usage is strongly recommended to keep passengers and security officers safe and to ensure procedures are conducted in a hygienic manner.

“…zips, bra clips and their underwires, suspender belt clasps and metal buttons do not cause alarms as they are below the standard detection threshold of magnetometers, so alarms seemingly generated by such items require resolution by physical inspection…”

Credit: Green Light Ltd.
Credit: Green Light Ltd.

We must also consider the approach to searching sensitive areas. The screener needs to take into consideration many factors, perhaps the most critical being cultural awareness and sensitivity. In addition to those areas globally understood to be ‘sensitive’, there are also culturally specific areas considered to be sensitive which the screener must be aware of. Pat-downs should be carried out by an officer of the same sex as the passenger and, when this is not possible, supplementary procedures should be executed, ensuring that the screening is done appropriately.

In executing their search, it is recommended that the security officer use the inside of their hands when covering non-sensitive areas such as the back, abdomen, arms (from shoulder to wrist), and the legs (from mid-thigh to ankle) as our fingertips and palms are more sensitive to detecting foreign objects than the back of our hands. When examining sensitive regions such as the groin or upper torso, it is required that they use the back of the hand as, for the passenger, there is less of a sense of being groped.

This is about finding a compromise between the most effective search technique and ensuring that searches are respectful. When screening a female passenger’s chest, for example, the screener may feel the outer perimeter of the chest, including above and beneath the breasts. Execution requires precise guidelines and boundaries that the security officer must follow but even perfect conduct of a body search may not always be enough to avoid complaints.

There are, however, specific challenges related to concealment techniques. Prosthetic limbs, wigs, certain types of headgear and even very tight dresses can make an inspection difficult to conduct; they could all be used to conceal prohibited or restricted items and the job of the screener is to take reasonable steps to ensure that they are not.

With regards to prosthetic limbs, we may decide to examine the item visually and, in extreme cases, where there are specific concerns regarding the passenger’s integrity, X-ray screening should resolve any lingering doubts. Headgear examination should be straightforward, however if we have to deal with religious garments, such as turbans, the approach must involve a polite, religiously respectful explanation of the search procedure and the reasons why a private search, away from the checkpoint, is necessary.

A tight skirt can make inspection of the  inner thigh challenging (Credit: Green Light Ltd.)
A tight skirt can make inspection of the
inner thigh challenging (Credit: Green Light Ltd.)

Tight dresses also make physical examination difficult, especially of the inner thigh. If concern warrants it, a private search away from the checkpoint, ideally with a witness present, may be the only option. The private search hut/area may also be used to resolve alarms caused by jewellery which cannot be removed, including piercings and certain types of bangles worn since childhood, and for any metallic items of clothing or undergarments that are causing alarms and where there remains a doubt as to the integrity of the passenger. Usually zips, bra clips and their underwires, suspender belt clasps and metal buttons do not cause alarms as they are below the standard detection threshold of magnetometers, so alarms seemingly generated by such items require resolution by physical inspection.

What is deemed unusual in one location may be routine in another. For instance, in Muslim countries we may expect more passengers wearing niqabs and burqas, whilst in airports with a high number of Sikh passengers we may expect turbans to be a regular challenge. Appropriate risk assessment and tailored training which takes into consideration the local culture is a must.

There is no universal legislation dictating the conduct of pat-down procedures. The design of the process must ensure that it is both sensitive to passengers’ cultures and religions as well as be thorough enough to adequately address the threat level. Complaints received from passengers may also have an impact and require amendment to procedures without compromising the overall security level.

Another challenge faced by the security operative is the evolution of concealment methods and effective training can, again, help mitigate this. The role of training in aviation security is undoubtedly critical and training must incorporate outcomes from two other prominent fields of security, such as risk assessment and threat analysis, and quality assurance and control. Including mentoring and coaching as a part of the training process is important to ensure methods are up-to-date with the dynamic changes in aviation security, including new and modern concealment methods.

The last challenge to be discussed is that of strip searches and the point at which the screener decides that a strip search has become necessary. As mentioned earlier, every airport and airline designs their security procedures depending on various factors, the key one being the current threat level. Specific locations categorised as ‘high risk’ will, through necessity, conduct a higher number of strip searches than those categorised as ‘low risk’. The reality is, however, that strip searches are rare in the airport environment whereas in prisons they may be the norm.

“…the inclusion of appropriate profiling methods and behavioural screening will aid in identifying potential threats and support the screeners decision to conduct the strip search…”

Airlines originating in countries with more restrictive security procedures may also apply additional regulations which could result in a strip search. The inclusion of appropriate profiling methods and behavioural screening will aid in identifying potential threats and support the screeners decision to conduct the strip search. Analysing the lessons learnt from previous incidents in which strip searches recovered prohibited or restricted items from passengers is very useful and must be incorporated into the initial and recurrent training.

Pat-down search being conducted at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq (Credit: G4S Secure Solutions)
Pat-down search being conducted at Baghdad International Airport, Iraq (Credit: G4S Secure Solutions)

Another reasonable justification for conducting a strip search is the inability to resolve why a passenger is continuing to set off the alarm when passing through the walk-through metal detector or body scanner. There are situations when a strip search may be the only option, for example, when the body scanner indicates that the passenger is concealing an item which was not identified during a pat-down and the screener has adequate grounds to believe that the passenger may indeed be a threat. If the passenger has an adverse reaction to being told they must undergo a strip search, the aforementioned techniques surrounding communication and conflict management become key again.

In every challenge presented there is one area which is easily recognised as being fundamental to reducing the impact of the challenges on the screener’s performance – training. Aviation security training is the link connecting the essential elements of aviation security such as risk assessment, threat analysis and quality control with its tools for identifying gaps and vulnerabilities. Adequately designed and effectively provisioned courses followed by mentoring and coaching activities help to develop and maintain the required skillsets, increase performance and sustainability, and mitigate the risk of acts of unlawful interference. It is also a vital element in the promotion of a security culture.

Psychology, sociology, the environment, health and safety, knowledge about modern concealment techniques, and the current threat level need to be considered by the screener when conducting a physical body search. This is not an easy task to perform efficiently without the risk of violating a passenger’s personal space. This informed approach, in conjunction with well-developed profiling techniques and behavioural analysis, will assist the screener, increasing their self-confidence and performance. From the passenger’s point of view, the above processes will reasonably reduce fear, frustration, any feelings of humiliation and serve to make the process easier to understand.

The pat-down is not a simple examination and the biggest challenge that the aviation security officer faces is how to find the correct balance between avoiding the intrusion of the passenger’s comfort zone (and overcoming their negative reaction to this intrusion) and effectively performing their duties.
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the body search requires the collaboration of the passenger and the aviation security screener. It needs to be a bilateral relationship and we need to create the right environment and atmosphere to foster that relationship.


Arkadiusz Kotela is the aviation security training manager and internal quality control auditor for G4S Secure Solutions at Baghdad Airport in Iraq. He has been in the aviation industry for more than 25 years, including six years operating in a hostile environment. Arkadiusz has held various managerial positions with airlines, airports, and ground handling agents and has worked for a civil aviation authority as a security inspector of aerodromes conducting audits. Arkadiusz can be contacted at: arkadiusz.kotela@gmail.com