Understanding prohibited items in aviation

Nicholas Ratledge by Nicholas Ratledge | Nov 4, 2019

The airport as we know it is a space full of moving parts and people.

When passengers reach the security screening point, security staff is responsible for ensuring no one is travelling with an item that is prohibited on board.

What items are prohibited and why?

The prohibited items list is an important element of the aviation security system as it establishes which items are prohibited from being carried by passengers onto the aircraft and should be detected at the security screening checkpoint. The usual suspects are:

The list is crucial in achieving a certain level of harmonization globally. Passengers expect, or at least hope that the items carried from an airport of origin will not be confiscated at transfer points or during their return journey.

Somewhat surprisingly, international guidelines say that a catapult is considered a prohibited item for travel onboard an aircraft.  A catapult is not exactly the smallest item that can fit in a carry-on bag.  This brings to question the prohibited list and how relevant it is for today’s travelling public.  Looking at the global risk picture, is the catapult an item that justifies efforts to be detected? .

As it stands, the ICAO suggested list of prohibited items contains a large number of items, some of which are still very relevant, and some of which address possibly outdated risks.  While some items have been added over the years, it is difficult to remove other items because decision-makers are often averse to risk. No decision-maker wants to take responsibility for a (very unlikely) hijacking made possible by a catapult that was allowed onboard..

Risk-based thinking

Aviation security is moving away from prescriptive approaches and using more risk based analysis in mitigating acts of unlawful interference. ACI World encourages States to move towards more outcomes-focused security measures. Reviewing the official prohibited items list could provide the following benefits:

  • Benefits for security screeners: They would be able to concentrate on items which pose a  true aviation security risk, which should increase their ability to detect items in real time
  • Technology benefits: The development of detection algorithms could be steered towards high-risk items, which would allow for focusing effort, time, and resources to find ways in detecting new forms of concealment or substances of interest
  • Benefits for passengers: Passengers would see fewer confiscations of personal items at checkpoints. Providing clear communication would help ensure a sense of security was not damaged
  • Benefits for airport operations: Security operations would be more efficient if fewer items discovered in the Security Restricted Area led to evacuation procedures

The use of technology

As threats evolve and the items people use evolve, technology continues to advance to help put in place better detection for prohibited items.  Airports are starting to deploy Computed Tomography (CT) and other advanced cabin baggage screening machines that can detect explosives including those concealed in liquids, aerosols, and gels. This could help reverse the current restrictions in place, relieving passengers of the tedious task of measuring their liquids.

The future of prohibited items on aircraft

The realm of aviation security is quickly evolving. While terrorists have sought to attack the public and landside area, airports are usually required to detect and remove weapons and explosives only later in the travellers journey – at the security checkpoint.

With the passenger screening experience moving towards greater differentiation and behaviour analysis, it begs the question, should our focus on physical detection and confiscation of prohibited items stay the same? While this may currently be the case, opportunities exist to ensure a more holistic and seamless security process for passengers at airports.

Smart Security: Vision 2040
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Based on ACI’s recommendation, ICAO has agreed to review the prohibited items list. With this review, a prioritization of items (or categories of items) according to their relative risk could be established with future regular reviews, in line with the evolution of threat and risk. We believe this will allow passengers to have a more pleasant journey while ensuring their security.

Nicholas Ratledge

Nicholas Ratledge

Senior Manager, Security, Safety, and Operations at Airports Council International (ACI) World
Nicholas Ratledge joined ACI World in March 2015. As Senior Manager, Security, Safety, and Operations at Airports Council International he is responsible for providing guidance and best practice with airport security standards and recommended best practices.
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