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Especially as pertains to US airports? Is baggage checked at all once it has been loaded into the cargo hold? Otherwise, is there anything that prevents an airport employee from slipping something into the cargo if he/she is tasked with loading the plane?

Feeling rather nervous about my upcoming flight so was hoping to assuage my anxiety by learning about the steps taken to guard against such actions.

  • Do different US airports have markedly different security protocols? – misaochan Apr 9 '16 at 16:31
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    It won't help (even though it should :-) ) - look at all the airline stats from airlines you would ever be willing to fly with - and look at your typical life expectancy. If you travel then the chance of your dying on an aircraft is FAR less than the chance that you will die form some other cause. Air travel is REALLY safe. Hiding in an airline cabin is probably safer than walking down a city street. | FWIW: I used to be "somewhat nervous" about flying - not scared but 'aware'. When booking a flight across almost the whole diagonal of China (up to Urumqi) I looked up accident stats .... – Russell McMahon Apr 9 '16 at 17:22
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    .... for all Chinese airlines. While they are not known as the top of the safty list, what I found cured my 'nervousness'. Totally. That was not a conscious result. Nor expected. I have been "carefree" when flying ever since. Perhaps too much so :-). – Russell McMahon Apr 9 '16 at 17:23
  • Thanks Russell. I hope this isn't considered a derail, but my fear comes not just from 'dying', but 'how'. The thought of plunging 35000 ft to my death just grips me with visceral fear, more than any other sort of death. Or do people just lose consciousness before that happens? Morbid, but if they do it's probably a good thing no? :/ – misaochan Apr 9 '16 at 17:42
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    “Atlanta, Miami and Orlando,” have thorough worker vetting in place, Nelson said. “What about the rest of the 297 airports nationwide?” from politico.com/story/2016/04/… – Gayot Fow Apr 9 '16 at 17:44
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Different airports use different techniques, choosing from among:

  • background checks for employees
  • requiring cargo and airside staff to pass through security checkpoints (like the ones for passengers) as they enter the airport (100% of staff in Europe, random checks in North America)
  • never leaving anyone alone with an aircraft or in the cargo bay
  • having different people load things onto the little trucks and empty the little trucks onto the plane
  • not telling employees much about which plane is which, where they are going, and which flights they will be loading
  • having supervisors look things over before the door closes
  • limiting the size of bags (lunches etc) staff can bring in, and keeping those bags separate from the rooms with tarmac access
  • security cameras that are monitored so things like loading a big bag into a vehicle will be noticed
  • cockpit crew, cabin crew, security crew and ground crew all perform "security checks and searches" prior to takeoff (may vary by airline; customs may also search for contraband, which could reveal other badness.)

And probably much more that hasn't been mentioned in the news. And as corroboration, an explosion that can be traced back to an inside job is practically unheard of. Luggage bombs worked for a while, but cargo handler bombs appear not to be a thing.

Relax as much as you can, and enjoy your flight.

  • Thanks Kate! The airport that I will be flying out of is SFO, if that would help with a more specific answer. Also, I know this is just speculation, but are there not theories that the Metrojet tragedy might be due to an inside job? – misaochan Apr 9 '16 at 16:46
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    @melange It's pretty certain at this point that Metrojet 9268 was brought down by a bomb. To get the bomb on the plane required at least four insiders at the airport, two of which were apparently police. At least, that is all who have been arrested to date. – Michael Hampton Apr 9 '16 at 17:04
  • Thanks for the clarification, why the need for four insiders if you don't mind me asking? – misaochan Apr 9 '16 at 17:39
  • Presumably so that A, whose job is to make sure B doesn't do anything nefarious, turns a blind eye when B does. More checks and oversights, more insiders needed to succeed. – Kate Gregory Apr 9 '16 at 21:19
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    Surely baggage handlers should know which plane is going where; otherwise how will they load the correct baggage? You could obfuscate it a bit, but all that information is public and obfuscating it would lead to a lot of missing baggage. – Hugh Apr 10 '16 at 5:08
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In the US, there have been recent incidents where airport employees have been caught involved in using their security bypass to participate in smuggling.

Some of the things currently being done are:

  • Airport employees who have badges to bypass security checkpoints, nevertheless still are screened randomly. The pace of random screening has been recently increased.
  • Airport employees are subject to extensive criminal background checks. There is talk about making these even more intrusive.

There really hasn't been an issue with airport staff involved in terrorism in the US, though this has been an issue in far less secure places such as certain African countries.

In the US, the worst thing you're likely to experience from a baggage handler is theft, and even that isn't very common.

Remember that these events are newsworthy precisely because they are extraordinarily rare. The common threats that you face, which are far more likely to cause you harm, virtually never get covered in the news. Thus, you remain far more likely to be killed in a car accident on the way to the airport.

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    Thanks Michael. The airport that I'm flying out of (SFO) is under a private security firm though I think, not the TSA. Would the increased screening still apply in that case? – misaochan Apr 9 '16 at 16:48
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    @melange The private firms have to do screening to TSA specifications. And generally they do a much better job of it than the TSA themselves. – Michael Hampton Apr 9 '16 at 16:51
  • Thank you! I really appreciated your answer, but I can only choose one... :( – misaochan Apr 9 '16 at 17:37
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I am an insider (cabin crew) and not in the cargo business per se, but I know for a fact that cargo employees have similar measures in place. So I will talk about measures we take in that specific area (aircraft cabins). For the airline I work for we have these policies in place:

  • We conduct a thorough security check in the cabin after all ground staff finish their duties and left (eg. catering, maintenance, cleaning, etc.)
  • Always check IDs of the ground staff who will come onboard after that, never just take the uniform for granted.
  • If an employee was found in a place he/she shouldn't, report that immediately.

Same thing happens with the cargo, they have other policies that ensures nothing is being smuggled, I had the privilege of walking in airport ramps and being in places normal passengers didn't. Also, at some airports crew do not go through normal terminals, rather we directly go from the hotel to the airport ramp (literally from the hotel door, to the aircraft door) and we check-in our luggage there, I have noticed the following:

  • Cameras in every single corner.
  • A secondary x-ray screening just right before loading luggage into that snake looking cargo carts (forgot the name).
  • Under planes, there is always a security personnel, and a cargo supervisor.
  • People who deliver luggage to the planes (drivers), are not the same ones who load them into the planes.
  • In many airports for larger planes, luggage are loaded into containers after being screened, these containers then are locked and transferred to the planes.

Finally, employees go through a much more thorough inspections than passengers.

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    Hrm, most flight attendants I met were Homo sapiens sapiens ;) – chx Apr 10 '16 at 21:01
  • @chx I am glad you got the obfuscated name ;) – Nean Der Thal Apr 10 '16 at 21:07
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Note: This does not address the question as originally put, but does address (or try to) the issues that Melange has since raised:

Re

Thanks Russell. I hope this isn't considered a derail, but my fear comes not just from 'dying', but 'how'. The thought of plunging 35000 ft to my death just grips me with visceral fear, more than any other sort of death. Or do people just lose consciousness before that happens? Morbid, but if they do it's probably a good thing no? :/.

It won't help (even though it should :-) ) - look at all the airline stats from airlines you would ever be willing to fly with - and look at your typical life expectancy. If you travel then the chance of your dying on an aircraft is FAR less than the chance that you will die form some other cause. Air travel is REALLY safe. Hiding in an airline cabin is probably safer than walking down a city street.

FWIW: I used to be "somewhat nervous" about flying - not scared but 'aware'. When booking a flight across almost the whole diagonal of China (up to Urumqi) I looked up accident stats for all Chinese airlines. While they are not known as the top of the safety list, what I found cured my 'nervousness'. Totally. That was not a conscious result. Nor expected. I have been "carefree" when flying ever since. Perhaps too much so :-).


So:

(1) The likelihood of dying really should be noted compared to daily alternatives. They are low

(2) There are many worse ways to die (and yes, I've thought about this and other options). It's likely to be un-useful to get into any sort of detail BUT very worst case in a mid air accident you might be conscious to some degree of what was happening for a period measured in minutes. I imagine it far more likely that one would be killed outright or be immediately unconscious in most cases. (I did some quick web seraching and stats seem not to be instantly available. They WILL be available somewhere - BUT may well not be beneficial to pursue. ).

I've been hit head-on and side-on by cars while motorcycling.
I've seen a lady (only once) trapped in a car by crash impact.
Unpleasant death over hours days weeks and years is NOT the norm but is "common enough" in our world.

NB: Odds are that however we die our deaths will not be excessively terrible events, BUT they may be, and the chances of this being in an air accident are utterly minimal.

If you dug into this in any detail the affect MAY be to make you feel worse about dying overall. Not desirable :-(. OR may be to help with the subconsciously driven fear from air accident death. As I noted, in my case, just reading up on air accident statistics for all Chinese airlines was enough to erase a long held "discomfort" which I was not really aware was present or able to be removed. Whether it would help you the same way I utterly do not know. A talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist may help. Or not.

In my 1st car-motorcycle accident the bike was written off, I was thrown through the air and sustained a broken leg. As soon as I could I got back on another very small motorcycle, strapped my crutches on the side, and rode it 12 miles to work each day. NO fear issues.
In my second accident I was hit head on - due to stupid and illegal behaviour by two different car drivers. I underwent surgery for what were essentially minor injuries (leg torn open nicely) BUT did not get back on a motorbike for about 3+ months. When I did I had a built in vast fear of other vehicle. I would veer and brake when I felt threatened. I realised that this was rational enough as people MIGHT do what the two people who tried to kill me did. My normal driving is what was irrational :-). No matter how hard I tried I could not overcome the behaviour. I bought a small car. After a year the car died. I got back on the bike and I found I was back to normal. The time off had somehow dispelled the fear.

My point is that our minds may follow unconscious paths that do not fully track what we think we think :-). Finding what the mind is really concerned with and dealing with it MAY help. It did in my case.

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