Airport Security and Screening: How the Rich and Famous Bypass the Queues
The increase of security at the world’s airports following the terrorist attacks on the 11th September 2001 resulted in travelers dealing with longer lines, more intrusive security measures and delays in getting cleared, checked and boarded. With global airline passenger numbers rising from 1.8 billion in 2000 to an estimated 2.8 billion in 2017, there is a growing demand and use of services for those who can afford it to bypass most of the delays that affect the vast majority of travelers.
Whether you are an international movie superstar, successful business-person or Grammy winning artist, the chance to save valuable time during your international travels and bypass the millions of people that pass-through airports every day is often too good an opportunity to pass up. But do those who pay for such luxuries undergo the same rigorous security procedures as the rest of us?
Change in security following 9/11 attacks
Prior to September 11, 2001 airport security was a far more casual affair. Security largely consisted of walking through an airport metal detector to check for weapons such as guns or knives that might facilitate a hijacking. The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon in 2001 were carried out by 19 terrorists, killing nearly 3,000 people. They managed to breach security screening, check points and personnel - boarding 4 separate aircraft with the intention to use them as guided missiles. Following this attack and demonstration of the failures in the wider security policy, it was discovered there were many areas that urgently needed to be addressed with regards to airport security.
Along with the lax screening security measures previously employed and exploited, a further element of concern was access to the airport infrastructure. In May 2000, undercover agents bypassed security checkpoints at 2 airports in the US and walked unescorted to the aircraft departure gates. It was only a matter of time until this lapse security was taken advantage of by terrorists, resulting in the regulations we have today.
The following changes have been enacted by airport around the world in recent years:
Airport Security: 9 Changes
- Specific ID required; ID name must match name on ticket
- Shoes must be removed at checkpoints
- All baggage, carryon and checked, must be screened
- No liquids (above 3.4 ounces) allowed through checkpoints
- Special items must be pulled from luggage (laptops)
- Jackets, outwear must be removed
- Body scan machine screening
- Enhanced pat-downs
- No more non-ticketed visitors allowed at airline gates
The most visible change connected to those employed by airlines were the in-house security screening staff. Before the attacks they were generally poorly trained and directed and often unable to detect threats such as knives, guns, bombs and airborne pathogens carried by passengers on their person or in their luggage. Along with unattractive wages and high turnover, the staff were largely unskilled, unmotivated and an inexperience security force, who were ultimately solely responsible for the security at our airports. A recent report suggested that following increased security measures and related waiting times, as many as 70,000 passengers missed flights in the spring alone due to longer security checking times.
The International Air Transport Association, whose members include British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and more than 200 global airlines, said main airports were struggling to cope with mounting layers of safety regulations that are now costing the financially troubled industry $7.4bn (£4.6bn) a year to implement.
However, the more security tightens and procedures are put in place to limit the risk to passengers and aircraft, the more terrorists adapt and attempt to circumnavigate the security procedures enacted. By focusing on potentially weaker areas such as lobbies, checkpoint entrances and arrival areas, they continually try to find weak points in the airport infrastructure that are not as well guarded; as was seen in the recent attacks on airports in Brussels and Istanbul. A further example of this was the downing of a Russian airliner over Egypt in 2015, in which 224 people were killed by a suspected IS terrorist planting a bomb in the luggage hold. These devastating acts show that there is still a clear and present danger regarding terrorist attacks and airport security today.
Following 9/11, a major intelligence overhaul was also enacted. Part of this overhaul saw the creation of a pre-screened “known” traveler list. This list enabled people to voluntarily sign-up and submit to being screened and included on a pre-approved list which enable them to expedited through the screening process at the airports. However, this policy has made many people uncomfortable as some believe it erodes personal freedoms and allows airport security to focus more on racial profiling and those of specific nationalities and religions.
How the rich and famous bypass the lines
Back in Hollywood’s Golden Age, air travel was synonymous with high profile movie stars stepping from planes and being mobbed by adoring fans and camera flashes. As such, keeping these big-name clients happy was a number one priority for airlines back then as they provided invaluable marketing, glamour and name association.
Today however aviation has become much more common and affordable, with much of the glamour, style and celebrity associated with the experience consigned to history. As such many famous names have had to limit their usual high expectations of being whisked through a secret underground tunnel in order to avoid the gaze of the common people.
Given the extra security measures and associated time-delays, it stands to reason that there will be a select few with the resources available that will attempt to find a way around these potential delays. For a big-name Hollywood celebrity, there is of course the added issue of wishing to avoid the increasing throngs of passengers and photographers that often-hinder progress and invade their personal space.
But despite the increase in security and availability of cheap air travel, there are still many airports that go out of their way to cater to the rich and famous with special perks, facilities and screening lines. These companies work with airline agents and personnel to facilitate smooth transit for high-profile travelers. This kind of services typically see the customer picked up at the location of their choice, where after they are driven to an exclusive drop-off point where a personal assistant will meet them, help with check-in and accompany them through dedicated private security screening. The client is the escorted to a private VIP waiting room, where they will wait until such time as private boarding is arranged.
In order to facilitate the comfort of their VIP travelers, some terminals such as LAX in Los Angeles are building dedicated terminals where the rich and famous can enjoy complete privacy and security. Prices for checking in at this exclusive terminal will cost $1,500 to $1,800, giving the customer access to special security lines, passport controls and lounges. Such an expense and plans are understandable in the traditional home of the rich and famous, but it is not thought that many other airports, such as Heathrow or JFK will follow such an extreme example.
What services are available
Where there is demand, there will be services created to meet it. The desire to skip through protracted security measures and maintain privacy is no different in this regard. As such there are numerous agencies, suites and policies dedicated to making airport travel a faster and more pleasant experience.
The busiest airport in the world is London’s Heathrow and until recently it offered no exclusive services to high profile customers outside of the usual first and business class private lounges. This changed in 2008 when the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) withdrew its funding for the airport’s Windsor Suite. The Windsor Suite, as the name suggests, was long the exclusive purvey of the Royal Family; a perk that no amount of wealth or fame could grant access to. Along with the Royal Family, only those approved on a list maintained by the FCO, such as visiting high-prolife diplomats, Popes, and heads of state could access the exclusive service. Following the removal of funding the airport was forced to change its policy to increase commercial revenue. The exclusive service has since been used by celebrities such as Harrison Ford, who recently availed himself of the service for a £2,000 fee. Other exclusive services at Heathrow are also available for first-class travelers, including the more traditional “Black Service” that starts from £2,750 and provides chauffeured pick up, private lounges and expedited security screening.
While this kind of exclusive luxury option may be out of the reach for most travelers, there are however more affordable services at airports around the world that are available and can still remove much of the tedium and stress from airline travel for the general public.
American Airlines offers passengers the option to purchase a “celebrity” packaged called “Five Star”. Similar to other more expensive services offered to A-Listers, this service includes curb side greetings, individual check-in, expedited security, access to the Admiral’s Club and early boarding on the aircraft. The price is a much more reasonable $250 per adult at various US airports, but is still only available to passengers flying first or business class. The program has since grown to include 14 destinations worldwide with many other airlines, among them Delta, Air France and Emirates, launching similar VIP options at selected airports.
Other services available to UK travelers include Airport Assistance Worldwide, a long-established VIP company based in Los Angeles offer travelers the ability to avoid paparazzi, long lines and security checks. It currently operates at more than 450 airports around the world, providing central VIP or VVIP services that can accommodate wealthy traveler needs, regardless of their destinations.
While many of these services may appear to represent the classic “1%” mentality of “us and them”, they have provided a valuable source of revenue for struggling airlines who have had to largely absorb the massive extra security costs implemented following 9/11.
Can these services can be exploited?
While the mental image of a “security threat” might present the more traditional image of a terrorist with a weapon, there have been numerous examples of more mundane security threats in which celebrities have attempted to use their position and influence to avoid the usual security screening procedure. Diana Ross famously assaulted a female security officer in 1999 after refusing to allow a standard security body-search. Other famous icons have also fallen foul of increased security measures during recent times. These famous names include Naomi Campbell, Josh Duhamel, Alec Baldwin, Kate Moss and Billie Joe Armstrong.
While it is understandable for those who have the means to seek quicker security screening and expedited boarding to do so, it does of course raise the prospect of this service being used as a potential back-door for terrorists.
However, despite the increased speed of the VIP services on offer, everyone who uses them must still undergo the same screening and security checks as you or I. Their luggage is still checked; they are still body-scanned with their documents analyzed and are subject to the same rules regarding the removal of shoes/jackets; thereby hopefully ensuring the safety of all passengers on board.
While there is potential for the system to be taken advantage of, it would appear that airports and airlines have a strong handle on the issues facing security today. The VIP services on offer do not allow for unsupervised access or exception to the rules that govern modern air-travel. These rules cover all major airports and apply to every single person - ranging from economy class on the most inexpensive Ryan-Air flight, to those VVIPs on a first-class Emirates flight.
The fairness of being allowed to jump queues and not have to deal with the many negatives of airline travel due to a person’s wealth are open to debate. A celebrity does not have a private lane on the M4 for example, but there will always be special treatment available to those who can afford it. Given the extra expense incurred by airports and airlines following 9/11, in which established airlines like US Airways Northwest, Delta, Air Canada, United Airlines and Jet Blue went bust, it is understandable that they will try to recuperate some of the extra costs with services such as these. As such it would appear that these expedited services are not just here to stay, but will form a bigger part of airport life in the future.
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Posted by Wayne Mullins on May 03, 2017