I'm a regular international flyer, my hand luggage is always scanned, and despite my best efforts it often gets searched, either due to mistakes on my part, or security being extra cautious. On my most recent flight I estimate about 5-10% of my fellow passengers also had their hand luggage opened and searched by hand.

On the other hand, I have never had any issues with checked in luggage, I've never been pulled to one side and asked to explain anything, and as far as I can tell my luggage has never been searched (unless someone has picked the lock and then been very tidy in re-packing it)

So, my guess is that either 1) checked-in luggage isn't scanned as well as hand luggage, or 2) checked-in luggage is scanned by some super-hi-tech scanners that are infallible in identifying suspicious devices and never need checking by a person.

If the answer is option 1) then why doesn't checked-in luggage need such a thorough check? What's stopping a bad-guy putting a couple of kilos of something dodgy into his bag that brings down the aircraft over the Atlantic?

If the answer is option 2) then why can't the infallible super-hi-tech scanners be used on hand luggage too so no-one ever needs to be pulled over for a manual search?

  • $\begingroup$ A good bonus question could be: is it possible to get back the checked-in luggage by security staff to be searched in front of the passenger in case of doubt on what is in it? $\endgroup$ – Manu H Oct 14 '19 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ I've had checked baggage searched manually, TSA usually leaves a note inside the bag. $\endgroup$ – crasic Oct 14 '19 at 13:50

The main reason why checked luggage is treated differently is that you cannot access it during the flight, therefore eliminating some of the security concerns (like e.g. a knife in checked baggage is not a risk). When your carry-on bag is hand-searched, it is most likely because something could not be seen properly or looked suspicious on the X-ray.

The checked baggage is still scanned though. The TSA writes:

TSA screens approximately 1.4 million checked bags for explosives and other dangerous items daily. Upon check in, your checked baggage will be provided to TSA for security screening. Once the screening process has completed, your airline will transport your checked baggage on your respective flight as well as deliver it to the baggage claim area. The majority of checked baggage is screened without the need for a physical bag search.

Inspection Notices: TSA may inspect your checked baggage during the screening process. If your property is physically inspected, TSA will place a notice of baggage inspection inside your bag. This is to inform you that an officer conducted an inspection of your property.

Note that the TSA will notify you with a notice in the bag when they opened it. Other countries might handle this differently and just open the bag without telling you.

Some more details of the screening process are given in this article (emphasis mine):

Soon after your suitcase vanishes behind the rubber curtain, it merges with the bags of other passengers -- in large airports, thousands an hour. After traveling up, down and around a vast network of high-speed conveyor belts, it arrives in a cavernous warehouse-like facility. Here, it will be scanned by Transportation Security Administration staff to make sure there's nothing in it that shouldn't be there, primarily explosives, illegal drugs or weapons. If they see any reason to open it, they will. Your bag might also be subjected to other checks, including sniffer dogs, X-ray and laser scanners and machinery designed to detect trace amounts of banned substances. If it passes muster, luggage handlers load your suitcase onto a wagon with the baggage of others on your flight. This wagon is driven onto the tarmac and its contents packed into the hold of the plane.

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Us mere mortals are not entitled to know of the proceedings taking place behind the thick rubber curtains of the baggage conveyor belt, for reasons too obvious to list here. However, this Youtube video does show us the very infallible super-hi-tech scanners your question is referring to.

At least in Atlanta, it seems obvious every checked in luggage goes through one of these infallible super-hi-tech scanners, which, I bet, use x-ray scanning and chemical detectors to asses the contents of the luggage while they are inside the device. These devices will most likely be in use in most of the larger airports around the world

The size of the infallible super-hi-tech scanners is, as one can see, quite large, so fitting them into the checkout stand would not be practical. I also suspect these devices are ridiculously priced, so one does not want to purchase or lease any more of them than aboslutely necessary.

And... I bet (yes yes, I know betting, guessing and such is not encouraged here) if the infallible super-hi-tech scanners detect something out of the ordinary, the suspicious luggage will be manually inspected. So the handling of hand- and checked in luggage is not different in this respect.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excessive sarcasm does not a good answer make. $\endgroup$ – T.J.L. Oct 14 '19 at 18:53
  • $\begingroup$ No, I was not being sarcastic, sorry if it seems exessively so, I guess i deserved the minus one and accept it. The fact remains, that the machines used behind the rubber curtains are pretty much the same, probably way more sophisticated actually, as the ones use at the check in counter. The performance of these devices is not published, for obvious reasons, so it would require speculation to give such "info" as an answer. You can rest assured though, that when travelling via big airports, the stuff going into the cargo hold is very thoroughly screened. $\endgroup$ – Jpe61 Oct 14 '19 at 19:09

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