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I've noticed that when taking non-Schengen flights at AMS (Schiphol airport, Amsterdam), there is no centralized security check after you enter the airport and go through passport control. Instead, the security check happens right at the gate. The security checkpoint opens about an hour before the flight departs from that gate. This system seems to have a huge number of disadvantages:

  • It must be really expensive - there's an X-ray machine, metal detectors, and for some gates even millimeter wave scanners at each gate.
  • Also, adding to the expense, there are washrooms at each gate, since passengers can no longer use the common area washrooms after passing through security.
  • It's really inconvenient for the passengers. There's no way to reach the seats inside the gate area before the security checkpoint opens, so people are forced to either wait far away in other areas of the airport, or (as I've seen many people do) sit on the floor, which is especially a problem for the elderly, etc.
  • The security lineup tends to be very long, since all of a sudden an entire plane-full of people tries to pass through a checkpoint with very limited equipment (i.e. usually just 1 x-ray machine)
  • Once inside the area, it's essentially an entire plane-full of people in a small area with no way to spread out, so there's always a shortage of seats
  • There's no way to buy e.g. a bottle of water (not to mention duty-free alcohol) in the secure area of the airport and bring it onto the plane, something that is generally allowed in typical airports
  • Security screening personnel must roam around the airport from gate to gate

I can think of only one advantage of this system: Arriving flights from non-Schengen countries (whose passengers must be re-screened for security) can just let people out of the plane through the gate - there's no need to "route" them through the secure area to a non-secure area, since everything is essentially a non-secure area. But surely this could have been solved at the airport design stage, as it is solved in many airports worldwide? Is this just a design oversight or a conscious decision? Are there other reasons to use such a system that I'm not thinking of? Is this typical in other European airports?

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The third point isn't completely accurate, I was able to wait inside the gate before the security checkpoint opens, they just ask everyone to leave to start preparing. –  Relaxed Aug 5 at 21:43
Also you can buy duty-free alcohol and take it through security as long as it's correctly sealed. As for water I recall a lot of airports with this setup have water fountains / vending machines after security (this may not be true for Amsterdam, I can't remember). –  SpaceDog Aug 6 at 1:57
@SpaceDog in Amsterdam the waiting time between security and boarding (because of the checks at the gate) are so short it's never an issue that there's no way to get drinking water (and in an emergency of course staff could always get some from outside the secure area in minutes). –  jwenting Aug 6 at 7:38
"Is this typical in other European airports?" Not that I know of. I've see ones with centralized security for all (eg. Madrid-Barajas), as well as per-gate security for all (eg. Zurich). –  vartec Aug 6 at 10:50
Note that Schiphol is apparently switching to centralized security so the airport's management seems to share your assessment of the cost-benefit trade-off. –  Relaxed Aug 7 at 0:12

1 Answer 1

up vote 9 down vote accepted

Screening at the gate is done at a number of other major airports, including Singapore Changi, Kuala Lumpur International, etc. And it has one massive advantage from the airport operator's point of view: you don't need to separate arrivals and departures.

This means that instead of essentially duplicating all routes to the aircraft (one for passengers boarding, one for passengers disembarking) and maintaining security to ensure that nobody accidentally or intentionally slips from one route to the other, you can basically build one floor less. Given how large the average airport building is, this is a pretty significant saving. As an additional bonus, arriving passengers get to shop at all the same restaurants, bars, duty-free shops as departing passengers, which means the airport makes more money and doesn't need to duplicate the duty-free shops either. Finally, as you note, this means you don't need the special "transit screening" that you do need at split-level airports to allow passengers to move from the unsecured arrivals to the secured departures areas.

Also, handling security at each gate may seem a bit inefficient, but it actually provides massive maximum capacity advantages. If your screening is centralized, and you've got a lot of flights leaving at once, then your central security may get really badly backed up. I've waited in 500m+ security lines in Heathrow, which has central security and thus has to funnel everybody through that single point of failure, where they wait fuming, tweeting about how much they hate LHR. In Changi, problem solved: you just let people into departures, where they can shop, eat, drink and be merry, and screen them a few hundred a time at the gates.

As for disadvantages, the cost to the airport of maintaining all the redundant screening areas isn't that huge, since the main cost of security is manpower, and each screening area is unattended when there are no flights using that particular gate. I can't recall exactly how AMS is set up, but in SIN each set of security equipment in T1/T2 is typically shared by a gate or two, with T3 having semi-central security checkpoints each covering half a dozen gates or so.

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Good answer, didn't think of not having to build a whole second level. Also, I don't think it's true for Amsterdam, but in some places it may allow them to do different levels of screening depending on the destination of the flight as well. –  SpaceDog Aug 6 at 1:58
Singapore does at-gate screening of some incoming flights, although this seems semi-random: I used to run into this often (but not always) when returning from Jakarta. –  jpatokal Aug 6 at 3:32
AMS has separate machines at each gate, but they are semi-mobile and could be moved if needed, reducing the number of needed spares. The cost also isn't that high, as if you centralise it all you'd need a lot of machines in the one or two lanes that you keep in order to handle the created bottleneck. –  jwenting Aug 6 at 7:41
@jpatokal many airports do that, mostly spot checks on flights arriving from destinations known to have a high incidence of contraband on board. Had the same arriving from Jakarta at Amsterdam. Drug sniffing dogs at the gate, and barriers (lines of airport police and moving screens) separating the passengers from the rest of the airport all the way through customs. First time I saw that at Amsterdam, rather impressive. –  jwenting Aug 6 at 7:43
This doesn't explain why the difference for Schengen vs non-Schengen. Especially given that passport control is centralized. –  vartec Aug 6 at 10:52

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