How to Improve Airport Security Queues

Qantas passengers queue at Melbourne Airport
Qantas passengers queue to clear security at Melbourne Airport. Photo: Matt Graham.

Earlier this year, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce infamously blamed inexperienced and “not match fit” customers for lengthy delays at airport security checkpoints.

“I went through the airports on Wednesday and people forget they need to take out their laptops, they have to take out their aerosols,” Joyce told the Sydney Morning Herald during the Easter holiday travel chaos.

Joyce later backtracked on these comments, and it turns out that the main reason for the long security lines during the Easter holidays was insufficient airport staff.

But in a way, Joyce does have a point. Airport security can be confusing – even for frequent flyers who are “match fit” – because every airport has different rules and requirements. In fact, the rules can be different even in different terminals of the same airport!

For example, at Melbourne’s domestic terminals, you can leave liquids inside your bag but still need to remove laptops and aerosols before your bag is x-rayed. In Canberra and (since last month) Sydney’s domestic terminals, it’s no longer necessary to remove your laptop from your bag before it is scanned. But if you’re travelling from Sydney or Melbourne on an international flight, you will need to remove any liquids from your bag and ensure they’re under 100mL.

Different airports around Australia also have different rules about whether you need to remove iPads from your bag, whether you should take off your jacket or belt, whether your laptop needs to be taken out of its case and placed in a separate tray, and so on. In fact, it seems that the security screening requirements are slightly different at just about every airport in Australia. When you travel overseas, the rules in each airport and country change yet again.

Last week, I observed the long security line at Melbourne Airport getting held up multiple times because travellers hadn’t removed aerosols from their bags. Their bags needed to be re-screened and a security staff member felt it necessary to bark at both the offending passengers and their colleagues who apparently failed to tell them to remove their aerosols, holding up the queue.

At Lisbon Airport, I was recently told off for removing my laptop and ordered to put it back in my carry-on bag. I thought I was doing the right thing, but apparently laptops at that particular airport don’t need to be placed in a separate tray any more. That’s nice, but it would be even nicer if they bothered to inform passengers of this!

When travelling in the United States, the security requirements at most airports are very strict. Liquids and aerosols, computers, iPads, belts, jackets and even your shoes all generally need to be removed and scanned through the x-ray machine. But even in the US, the requirements aren’t consistent: in Los Angeles, for example, you can now keep computers and liquids in your bag and don’t need to remove your shoes.

It would make life a lot easier for travellers – in turn, making security queues move faster – if every airport had consistent requirements for travellers clearing security. Since this idea is obviously a fanciful utopia that will never happen, clear and consistent signage at the entrance of every airport security checkpoint would be the next best thing.

Clear signposting needed at airports

Currently, most airports rely on security screening staff yelling at passengers to communicate what is expected of them. But would it really be that hard for airports to place clear, consistent signs at the entrance of every security checkpoint explaining exactly what passengers do and don’t need to do?

For example, a simple sign like this at the entrance of the security checkpoint at the Qantas domestic terminal in Melbourne Airport would be helpful:

Example of a sign that could be placed at the entrance of the security checkpoint at Melbourne Airport T1
Example of a sign that could be placed at the entrance of the security checkpoint at Melbourne Airport T1. Image: Matt Graham.

Variations of these signs could be used at airports all over the world. For example, a sign like this could be used at Lisbon Airport in Portugal:

Example of a sign that could be placed at the entrance of the security checkpoint at Lisbon Airport
Example of a sign that could be placed at the entrance of the security checkpoint at Lisbon Airport. Image: Matt Graham.

Not everyone passing through an airport is a frequent flyer. Others may be visiting from overseas and may not speak English. So, clear, universal signage with pictures and colours would be very helpful to travellers and speed up the entire process for everybody.

This concept seems incredibly obvious, but barely any airports around the world have implemented signage like this to date. With many airports around the world struggling right now with long security lines, surely anything that makes the process more efficient would be a good thing?


You can leave a comment or discuss this topic on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum.


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Matt Graham
The editor of Australian Frequent Flyer, Matt's passion for travel has taken him to over 60 countries… with the help of frequent flyer points, of course!
Matt's favourite destinations (so far) are Germany, Brazil, New Zealand & Kazakhstan. His interests include economics, aviation & foreign languages, and he has a soft spot for good food and red wine.

You can contact Matt at [email protected]

Community Comments

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The official response is probably something like, how do you catch the bad guys if you give them advance warning what you’re looking for on any given day…

Now, there should be a direct correlation between the equipment being used and the requirements for the passenger, hence enduring signs, but as you explained in the article, it always varies slightly from terminal to terminal, airport to airport and country to country. Maybe the difference is based on the lowest common denominator working that shift? Shouting is easier to change than different signs?

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Agree Matt… better signs are needed. I’m not liking the new ‘auto’ scanners much… your bag gets shunted off to the side and it’s hard to know why it’s breached the rules :(

You have to wait ages for an officer to get to your bag, and recently in Amsterdam I asked ‘what are you looking for?’, she replied ‘I don’t have to tell you that’. I said ‘I’d be interested to know so I don’t leave that in my bag for next time’, she repeated ‘we don’t have to answer that’.

The search revealed nothing and I was good to go :(

Reply 3 Likes

Improve airport security by getting people through quicker.

If staff and machinery are the issue then they obviously need to rethink their strategy.

There's very little consistency between airports. Laptops, liquids, aerosols, belts, shoes. Different requirements depending on the airport or scanner used.

Yes you can blame people for not being ready but if you have to make sure that all your pockets are empty, stand in front of scanner for 10 seconds then wait for someone to interpret the data and if you're like me 2 hotspots show up even though nothing there so waste more time.

There has to be another way. You can't expect people to turn up to airport 5-6 hours before their flight, wait in long queues and people are still missing flights.

Can I ask a silly question? In all this time have they actually caught anyone planning to do something bad?

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Amen to clearer signage!

CBR is my home port but I've been traveling through ADL, BNE, SYD, MEL in the last week and each seem to have different rules. In BNE the rules at the premium scanning seem different to the regular one I had to use a few months back when the premium was closed.

Even at CBR I have been fine with my suit jacket on until recently, now they want it off - and those full body scanners inevitably pick up 'something' in a different location on my body - despite there being NOTHING there.

I specifically brought a 'checkpoint friendly' laptop bag (TOM BIHN Cadet, Everyday Carry & Travel Laptop Briefcase, 13.5L) which used to save me a lot of time pre-COVID just sliding out the laptop in its sleeve. Since COVID everything is so variable that is OK in some airports and not in others.

It seems that you can do everything in your power to get through quickly - but the system is designed to frustrate you!

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Since I had my knee replaced, it doesn't matter what I take off, put in a tray or through the scanner....I get the full treatment and explosives check.

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100% - so frsutrating and requires so much rework

My only addition to your suggestion would be to have the signage at multiple points in the security queue. At one airport I go to, you dont find out until you are standing next to the screening equipment what you need to remove/leave on, etc

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Four weeks ago, a few days before the potential school holidays impact was being blasted on radio and TV, I was retained to do the voice-over for a video that now plays on big screens at Sydney Terminal 3 security checkin (and it might be running at Terminal 2, but I haven't been over there). The script said "leave EVERYTHING in your bag". I didn't believe it, but it was recorded exactly as requested.

This is personal. I'm a technologist who routinely travels with way too much tech (because that's the gig), and at security lines I'm committed to taking EVERYTHING out so that I don't have to do the delay dance: "is this your bag? We have to check it and rescan!". Grr. But by "way too much": think 7 or 8 of those small trays with distributed... stuff. I once missed a flight in KL due to over-zealous security, and suspicion and caution runs very high.

So... how well does the new T3 process work? I've been through the scan three times in the last three weeks with a stuffed backpack and carry-on case full of cables, and guess what: through every time. No re-scans. Amazing. The voice doesn't lie!! 👍

Compare to Melbourne two weeks ago: I was awarded a rescan despite taking everything out. Precisely same "stuff".

Yep, I'm a believer. :D

Tip: the western security line at SYD Terminal 3 is a dream, and almost always under-utilised compared to the main entry.

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At which airport did Mattg have problems with his laptop?

Uninformative not to identify the location.

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I find new body scanners slow everything. Before you walked through a metal detector quite quickly, now they make you stop hands above your head - wait - scan - wait.
It now takes twice as long to scan one person. On a recent trip I noticed that airport security were conscious of long lines and passenger frustrations - so switched from "hands above your head" body scanners to the old walk through metal detectors to clear the queue backlog.
It's very inconsistent everywhere....

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The full-body scanners are also part of the problem - they take several times longer than just walking through a metal-detector arch, and they don't seem to work consistently. I've seen false positives on a large percentage of people, which then need checking, but I've never seen a true positive after the person is frisked.

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