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I have googled a little about the type of security screening done to hold and hand luggage. From what I have seen the hold luggage is clearly subject to more rigorous screening, including tomography should it raise suspicion.

However, in light of the recent announcement for passengers to travel with charged mobile devices and be able to switch them on, I have become slightly confused as to why an explosive device would not cause an issue in the hold (I presume passengers won't be asked to remove all electrical items from their hold luggage and switch it on!).

Is the feeling that a small explosive device could do more damage in the main cabin, whereas in the hold the aeroplane's structure would absorb it? Or is there really a "foolproof" way for the hold luggage scanners to detect whatever is being searched for ?

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  • $\begingroup$ even a small explosion will tear apart a pressurized airplane if it is against the wall, when you hold it you can put it there, when it's in the hold you are taking a gamble $\endgroup$ – ratchet freak Jul 7 '14 at 19:15
  • $\begingroup$ Bombs in the hold can certainly bring down a plane: Pan Am Flight 103 comes immediately to mind. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Jul 7 '14 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ I personally do not see why this question has been flagged as off-topic. To me is clearly about aviation security. $\endgroup$ – Federico Mar 2 '16 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ "in light of the recent announcement for passengers to travel with charged mobile devices and be able to switch them on": I don't know what you are talking about at all. Presumably in the US, but the site is international. $\endgroup$ – mins Mar 2 '16 at 17:50
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As ratchet freak pointed out you do have some more flexibility in ensuring that a small cellphone-sized explosive device is positioned to cause maximum damage if it's in your carry-on baggage as opposed to if it's in checked baggage/cargo. As such there is an inherently higher risk here.

Counterbalancing that risk is the fact that we already have good screening tools to detect explosives or other anomalous things (like say knives or tear gas) concealed in what purports to be an electronic device:

  • Electronic devices are subject to X-Ray inspection.
    Trained operators can spot quite a few anomalies using these "classic" tools (though rechargeable batteries can often look like explosives).
  • Explosive Trace Detection machines are already a part of security screening.
    There are also swab machines which operate on a similar principle. They are not foolproof (they have false positive results occasionally, and may miss well-packed explosives), but they're a good tool.
  • Airport security has already asks to see suspect devices power on.
    I had an old Compaq laptop with a completely useless battery, and security would let me plug it in if the battery was dead.

These same techniques (and others) are available for use on checked baggage.
Checked baggage may also be opened for inspection, which could conceivably include powering on any electronic devices in checked baggage (but note that the TSA recommends you not pack your electronics in checked baggage).


It's worth pointing out that, at least from a technical standpoint, faking a "power-on" is trivial with today's technology. Unless they're making folks do a full functional demonstration of the device in question a motivated individual with malicious intent would have no problem making a device that's mostly filled with explosives but can still "power on" and display a home screen, which makes the additional security benefit here dubious, at least in my estimation.

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  • $\begingroup$ The rules as presented by many airports simply say that electronics should go in carry-on luggage. Not worded as mere recommendation. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 13 '14 at 20:46
  • $\begingroup$ @JanHudec As far as the TSA is concerned it is a "mere" recommendation (and you'll note the TSA info is from their Claims Management branch - the "Don't blame us for stealing your stuff" branch). There is no (TSA or DHS) prohibition on electronics in checked baggage that I'm aware of, however there is a DOT prohibition on spare lithium batteries. Individual airlines and airports are of course entitled to set their own policies, which may differ from the minimum requirements. $\endgroup$ – voretaq7 Jul 13 '14 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ I live in Europe where instead of one TSA we have separate police with it's slightly different rules in each country. The airports and airlines then obviously prefer to stay on the safe side instead of dealing with the details. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Jul 14 '14 at 6:16

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