A third of Which? members who told us they’d accidentally taken something prohibited through a UK airport in the past two years said that the item wasn’t discovered.
This included not just liquids but also knives and other sharp items. One holidaymaker told us that he only remembered about the clasp knife in his pocket when he was due to fly home from India. He’d walked through airport security at Manchester Airport without it being detected and had been able to board the plane.
Security expert Philip Baum, who worked at Heathrow in the 80s and is now editor of Aviation Security International magazine, wasn’t surprised that so many passengers had told us they’d passed through security with prohibited items. ‘As an industry we place so much faith on archway X-ray machines and metal detectors,’ he says.
‘They did a good job of preventing hijackings in the 60s and 70s but that was when you were looking for bulky, dense, metallic items with a defined shape, such as a gun, grenade or knife.’ He’s not convinced that they should be the chief line of defence against more current threats, arguing that well-trained staff analysing passenger behaviour is more effective.
In our annual airports’ survey more than half of respondents said that slow, chaotic security queues are one of the things they find most frustrating about airports. Manchester and Stansted were given just one star for the queues. You can see how your local airport compares here for the largest airports or here for smaller airports.
It’s the airports themselves, private companies, that are responsible for outbound security in the UK. They are overseen by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). The CAA told us: ‘The UK has one of the most robust aviation security regimes in the world.
‘Airports are responsible for the security of their operations and, while we cannot comment on specific details of the screening arrangements in place at individual airports, any breach is taken very seriously.’
Manchester Airport insisted that, like all UK airports, it does have stringent security measures but added: ‘Without seeing the alleged item, and this only being brought to our attention six months after the incident, it is difficult to comment on the case in question.’
UK airports confiscate thousands of items every day. These include everything from marmite to canisters of CS gas and pepper spray. The latter are offensive weapons under UK law and all finds have to be reported to police. Yet when we investigated, it was extraordinarily difficult to establish how many weapon offences UK airport police deal with each year.
In theory, police crime statistics are publicly available online. These show that from June 2017 to May 2018 there were 878 possession of weapon offences at Stansted Airport, 216 at Manchester, 52 at Gatwick but just 12 at Heathrow and seven at Luton.
But the Metropolitan Police, responsible for Heathrow, admitted that it’s unlikely that Stansted has vastly more weapons crime than other airports. It said that differences in the way crimes are recorded was likely to be the reason for the apparent disparity and suggested that Which? make a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to get the real figures.
Freedom of information failings
Unfortunately, the FOI did not make things much clearer. Bedfordshire Police, responsible for Luton, said that it, ‘does not centrally record the number of weapons discovered’.
Essex Police told us, in contrast, that it records weapon possession ‘in compliance with National Crime Recording Standard (NCRS) rules, which state that anyone found in possession of a knife or prohibited article should have the offence recorded and an appropriate disposal given.’ However, four months after making our request it had still not confirmed the exact figure for Stansted.
Manchester Police broadly confirmed its online figures, with 218 weapons found – 181 of which were CS gas and pepper spray.
Sussex Police, responsible for Gatwick, have not provided a response to our FOI, despite having been chastised by the Information Commissioners Office for a breach of the Freedom of Information Act in similar circumstances last year.
The Metropolitan Police FOI team initially claimed that just 26 weapons were found at Heathrow. However, the press office told us that the real figure is likely to be ‘around 1,000’. When we went back to the FOI team it admitted that it had incorrectly given us figures for ‘possession of weapon’ offences, rather than weapons actually found.
Same weapons, different rules
The reason for the confusion appears to be that not all weapon finds are recorded as ‘possession of weapon’ offences. They may be recorded as ‘possession of a prohibited item in an aerodrome’ or other categories.
The police have wide discretion in how they deal with weapon finds.
Essex Police and Stansted told us: ‘The majority of offences recorded at Stansted Airport, in relation to the possession of offensive weapons, are not carried out by people carrying knives for criminal reasons. They tend to be passengers from across Europe and the UK who forget they can’t take knives and CS gas through Central Search – very few cases have criminal purposes.’
British citizens are likely to be treated much more harshly if found with pepper spray or CS gas, than nationals of other countries.
Both Essex and the Metropolitan Police, argued that it’s not in the national interest for foreign nationals to be charged for possession of pepper spray or CS gas, if it’s legal in their home country.
The Metropolitan Police told us that some foreign nationals caught with CS gas might not even end up missing their plane. Instead offenders would get a ‘community resolution’ – a kind of warning that remains on police files but isn’t a criminal record.
The Metropolitan Police also said officers may also consider the use of community resolutions, ‘as well as using formal criminal justice procedures, such as cautions, arresting or charging suspects’.
Both forces warned – however – that British nationals carrying the identical weapon could be prosecuted. The police at the other three largest UK airports wouldn’t confirm whether they have similar policies.