What Can Airport Baggage Scanners See?

What Can Airport Baggage Scanners See?

Airport scanners – Big Brother or Big Mother?

Security concerns have made air travel a pretty invasive affair, but the security process is actually designed to protect us, the passengers. It is critical to the safety of all who fly that hold luggage, hand luggage and each passenger’s physical person are all checked by scanners to ensure compliance with restrictions.

How do airport scanners work?

If you have ever wondered how airport baggage scanners work, airports use two different kinds of scanners. The first are full-body scanners known as millimetre wave scanners and create a moving image like what we are used to seeing in movies.
Backscatter X-rays are designed to show hidden objects beneath clothing or luggage. They can detect both metallic and non-metallic objects, ranging from guns to foods and plastics. Some airports no longer use backscatter scanners because they’re considered a privacy invasion, but they remain in use at major US, UK, and European airports.

airport body scanner
Source: Getty Images

Full – body Scanners

Backscatter and millimetre wave scanners can achieve a detailed view of the body beneath all clothes. They remove the need for pat-downs, so many tourists prefer them to the alternatives. In the United States, travellers are allowed to choose between scans and body searches, but the UK Department for Transport doesn’t allow passengers to fly without being scanned. Scanners can detect steel and non-metallic objects on the exterior of the body.

Contrary to popular belief they cannot see inside body cavities or diagnose disease. New ATI scanners have been designed to provide passengers with more privacy by showing only a generic outline, which cannot indicate gender or body type. Other forms of scanner, however, are far more detailed (see image left).

If you’re travelling through an AIT scanner, you can relax in the knowledge that the security process will be less invasive than in the past. Your security officer will see an image akin to a paper doll. In airports still using explicit scanning, the officer viewing the image is kept in a separate room so that passenger and scanner never make direct contact.

airport body scanner
Source: perpetualcommotion.com

What do airport baggage scanners see?

Baggage Scanners are explicit enough to pick up detailed images of your luggage contents, which is why so many of us wonder “what do airport baggage scanners detect?” They can detect metallic and non-metallic objects, including most organic materials. That means you might not get away with smuggling banned foods in your suitcases.

Baggage scanner machines rely on X-rays to see through the surface of your luggage to achieve detailed images of the items inside it. Security officers can calculate how dense each object is, which gives them the information they need to spot contraband. They might not be able to work out what every item in your luggage is, but if suspicious items are detected, you may be bag searched. It’s advisable to mind the rules about any banned items in carry-on and hold luggage.

Lost luggage and damaged bags – what to do

Lost luggage and damaged bags are a regular occurrence. In 2017 airlines “mishandled” 50 million bags. By 2018 that figure had dropped to 25 million, that’s nearly half a million bags a week!

Whether you’re travelling with a low-cost airline or a major airline and you suffer losses as a result of negligence or poor luggage handling, EU passenger regulations may entitle you to compensation. If your luggage is delayed Regulation (EU) No. 261/2004 will protect you.

It is extremely important to report lost or damaged bags immediately and file a Property Irregularity Report. Bags are considered “missing” up to 21 days after your flight, after which they are then considered “lost”.

Claim type

Damaged luggage

Missing or damaged contents

Delayed or missing luggage

Lost luggage (after 21 days)


7 days after receiving luggage

7 days after receiving luggage

21 days after flight

As soon as possible once officially lost

The amount of compensation awarded can be up to €1,400, however this is decided on an individual basis and is often much less than the maximum possible.

More information about passenger rights and baggage problems can be found on the GIVT website.

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