RAMESH THAKUR. Who Will Bell the Sydney Airport Security Madness?

Is it possible that pranksters with a perverse sense of humour are in charge of security procedures at Sydney International Airport? Perhaps they are trying to test the limits of traveller tolerance. If so, they might be close to succeeding with me. I am slowly approaching the tipping point where either I will break and risk a confrontation or else I will abandon international travel, at least via Sydney. I say this as someone of reasonable intelligence and exceptionally wide international travel experience as a frequent traveller – and therefore someone who is very heavily invested in safe flights.

Bear in mind that this is something experienced by thousands of people on a daily basis. Yet the airport security personnel are not accountable or answerable to anyone for their actions. In most respects people making contact with government departments have avenues of complaint about unacceptable or unpleasant encounters. But airports are effectively rights-free zones where ‘they’ are in complete control and ‘we’ had better obey, or else.

We adopt an entirely different balance between safety, cost and convenience for road travel. Last year the toll of deaths on Australia’s roads was 1,143 people. If the same approach to absolute safety regardless of cost and inconvenience was implemented, the toll would plummet to double digits.

We are all herded like meek sheeple by the vast impersonal bureaucracy of the national security state. There seems to be no one looking after the interests of the little guys, demanding a halt to the growing inconvenience foisted on the travelling public. In the name of that same insatiable security, crucial information on which conclusions can be drawn is withheld. The bodyscanners were quite expensive per unit. How many potential threats have they detected that would not otherwise have been caught?

Ideally, there should not be any racial or religious profiling. But if they are going to engage in security-by-profiling, they should get the parameters right. Given my particular ethnic identity and septuagenarian age, I should be in the lowest threat category on any profiling program for potential terrorists. Has there been a single terrorist incident involving someone from this demographic? Yet four times out of five, I am whisked aside at the security screening point and redirected to the full body scanner machine. This is a phenomenon peculiar to Sydney. It has happened at other Australian airports, but only exceptionally, not as a matter of routine.

This is wrong and counter-productive on multiple levels. The decision is made by rather youngish-looking men or women based on nothing other than the traveller’s appearance. There are only two immediately distinguishing visible characteristics: my age (you know you have reached that certain age when people begin offering you their seats in the bus unprompted) and skin colour. As the elderly are not generally pulled aside for special attention, the only plausible explanation for giving me a thorough lookover is my obvious Asian identity.

Especially after the Christchurch mosque massacres, young white males ought to command greater scrutiny. But no, they swan through while the fact that another Asian is asked to go through the full body scanner serves merely to subliminally reinforce the perception that the darker skinned, all of us, pose an extra level of threat, regardless of every other consideration.

The typical personnel on screening duty are not the most sophisticated judges of character. Rather, they tend to be of low education with minimal training. It would be much better to shift the decision to computer algorithms at the point of checking in. The security system could access big data of travellers in a centralised databank and make far more sophisticated assessments of the risk factor. The boarding pass could indicate regular, extra or low security screening for each passenger. I assume it is something like this that has built up my profile in the US where typically now I end up in the lowest security lane where there is no requirement to remove shoes, jackets and laptops. In some other countries people over 70 are automatically sent to priority security screening lanes with less rigorous inspection procedures.

At the other end of the flight in Vancouver, disembarking passengers were directed into three lanes: those for whom Vancouver was the final destination; those with international connections; and those with domestic connections. People in the last group were kept in a ‘sterile’ area throughout, bussed to the domestic terminal and disgorged straight into the departure areas without having to repeat security screening. Some European airports do the same. If you stay with one airline in US domestic flights, you go through security only once. If you fly American Airlines from Toronto to Sydney via Los Angeles, you get screened only in Toronto. But you will be screened again for Sydney to Canberra!

This adds to the cost with nil gain on security. Worse, on the outward journey, having been randomly selected in Canberra for an explosives test, I had to repeat the same test in Sydney. As this too has happened frequently, each time I ask politely if they couldn’t give me a sticker after the first one to show I had already done it. Of course this would become moot if they rescinded the requirement for a fresh security screening in the first place.

The Sydney syndrome is counter-productive for three reasons. It privileges a diffuse over a focussed approach that would concentrate on the most likely instead of a vague and generalised threat. It communicates to the entire travelling public in full view the not so subtle message that anyone of a different skin colour is a higher-level potential terrorist threat and thereby foments inter-racial suspicion and mistrust. And over time it risks radicalising the youth by telling them they are not accepted as everyday normal Australians based purely on their visible minority appearance. In other words it might be creating the very threat it is meant to detect and defeat.

While on the subject of Sydney airport, why on earth does it still lack reliable, frequent and free transportation between the different terminals? This is now standard practice in airports around the world. The Qantas bus transport system between the domestic and international terminals and the paid bus transfers for non-Qantas passengers is so last century. It’s not as if the airport authority is in red. It must mean that the madness of greed afflicting the corporate sector ensures that shareholder returns take priority over traveller convenience: profits before people.


Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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4 Responses to RAMESH THAKUR. Who Will Bell the Sydney Airport Security Madness?

  1. Avatar Robert Luton says:


    Wholeheartedly agree with your assessment of airport security procedures at Sydney Airport, and the mean-spirited approach to airport transfers, the latter more a revenue target by Sydney Airport Holdings in the style of obscure charges levied by Australian banks.

    However, my experience as a frequent traveller in recent years suggests the security scanning procedures may have less to do with ethnic profiling, and more to do with a little bastardry and meeting key performance indicators, randomly selected with no relevance to an actual threat profile (Jim Kable’s Mum being a prime example).

    The occasional body scan I previously encountered, has now been repeated along with luggage inspections on the most recent six occasions I have passed through Sydney.

    As a fellow septuagenarian, clearly of Anglo background and slight frame, I couldn’t resist an irritated challenge on my last trip and questioned what it was about my appearance that attracted attention every time I passed through the airport. My interlocutor, of Asian extraction, assured me the process was purely random.

    Maybe there is a subtle ‘quid pro quo’ being played by airport security personnel?

  2. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    Remember the kerfuffle when Julie BISHOP – her highness herself – was pulled aside for screening? Oh, the ensuing screaming! And it is all politicians who are the true terrorists of our society – I’d say into a side room for them all – were I in charge – simply as payback for their treatment of the rest of us. Ramesh – I understand perfectly your point – and I can only assume that to counter your excellent observations I too, a teacher (retired) of a certain age – am also pulled aside – clearly as an Anglo-aged person another threat to our society. Just three years back at Tamworth Airport – my brother and I saw our elderly mother to the plane to Sydney (heading there for her first ever major surgery). She was in a wheel-chair – with a light cotton cardigan. Remove the jacket (?!!) ordered the obese young woman working there – no one behind us – a quiet day. Oh, and remove those shoes. My mother – first time ever on a flight (domestic or international – 86 years old then) looked around – what on earth. It was painful for her to remove her cardigan and impossible for her to bend on the chair to remove her shoes. The ignorant young woman – frightened to act on her own initiative – the point you make Ramesh about education level was spot on – did not make an executive decision to wave her through. It was a dreadful abuse of power – I saw her as the kind of guard in a Nazi Concentration Camp – certainly by now she’s probably a senior in Dutton’s Border Force! Dreadful. Oh, and yes, how many times having once entered an airport/international transit and flights must one be yet again ordered to take off shoes, belts, jackets, empty pockets…I don’t want to be “protected” if the truth is known! Not by the kinds of folk you and I have had dealing with us. The algorithm you advocate though will be written by whom? Will it target skin hue, age – ethnicity? Can we have oversight of its writing?

  3. Avatar Andrew Farran says:

    The fact that these arbitrary and discriminatory aspects of airport security processes are well known to those responsible for them suggests that those higher up in the airport hierarchy just don’t want to be engaged with lower level functions.
    Clearly at Sydney anyway the requisite supervision is lacking. It is only a matter of time before there is a serious incident provoked by these procedures. The main ingrediant that is lacking is common sense. The rules governing these processes need thorough and intelligent review as they are not only seen to the casual observer as absurd but more seriously they are ultimately counter-productive – and for many, offensive.
    There are valuable lessons to be learnt in this regard from overseas, such as world’s best practice that should not be lost here.

  4. Avatar R. N. England says:

    Fear of flying, actually fear of anything, is deeply child-like behaviour. People abandon what they have learned, and seek out authoritarian control. Being pushed around by airport goons comforts the fearful. The effect on people less likely to abandon their wits, and who can calmly consider the extremely low probability of the plane crashing, tends to be the opposite. They are much more likely to be troubled by a visceral loathing of the airport itself, above all the goons. The airport employment empire is based largely on fraud. Most of our “free” economy is. That is its Achilles heel.

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