Slate's Explainer: Laptops and Airport Security

Will your laptop slow your progress through airport security this holiday weekend? Slate senior editor Andy Bowers has an "explainer" on why laptops get special attention from security screeners.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Some 20 million people are traveling by air this Thanksgiving holiday and they'll have to wait in long security lines, coats off, shoes off, laptop out of the bag, but why? Why does your computer have to be taken out of its case before it's X-rayed? The Explainer team at the online magazine Slate has the answer. Here is Slate's Andy Bowers.

ANDY BOWERS reporting:

In theory, a laptop might contain a bomb or hide a weapon. The rule allows screeners to get an unimpeded look at each computer but it also makes it easier for screeners to see whatever else is in the bag. Computers can be large and dense enough to conceal parts of a suitcase in an X-ray image. A knife, for example, might slip through a scanner if it were tucked underneath a heavy laptop.

No one worried too much about electronic devices in carry-on baggage until the 1989 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. The device that destroyed the plane and killed 270 people turned out to have been hidden inside a boom box. After this incident, Congress briefly considered banning electronic devices in the cabin. Instead, the FAA asked airlines and airports to exercise more scrutiny over cell phones, radios, alarm clocks, computers and other electronics. For a while, many travelers were asked to turn on their laptops at screening checkpoints to prove that they functioned normally. Security experts said these procedures were a waste of time, since you could easily hide a bomb inside a functioning computer.

By the late '90s, the practice had mostly disappeared but the exact rules for screening laptops seemed to vary from place to place up until 9/11. Since the end of 2001, the removal of laptops from carry-on baggage has been standard practice at US airports. Initially this practice led to a dramatic increase in reports of lost property, as passengers forgot their computers at security checkpoints.

And here's a bonus Explainer. Do other countries make travelers remove laptops from their cases? Some, such as Canada, do, although many European countries do not. Several Slate readers said they've actually been castigated for taking out their laptops unnecessarily. One quoted an airport guard in the United Kingdom as saying, "That's the easiest way to spot an American."

BRAND: Andy Bowers is a Slate senior editor and that Explainer was compiled by Daniel Engber.

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