Edmonton pipe bomb incident: How much power does airport security have?

Airport security officers scrutinize passengers today more than ever before, but the revelation that a man boarded a flight in Edmonton after being caught with a pipe bomb is raising questions about what powers those officers actually have.

Security confiscates thousands of contraband items, but can’t arrest passengers

From stripping down to identifying all liquids and gels, going through airport security can be a stressful experience. (CBC)

Airport security officers scrutinize passengers today more than ever before, but the revelation that a man boarded a flight in Edmonton after being caught with a pipe bomb is raising questions about what powers those officers actually have. 

This week, it came to light that on Sept. 20, airport security discovered a pipe bomb in the man’s luggage, confiscated it and then allowed him to board his flight. Airport officials notified the RCMP four days later, leading to his eventual arrest.

Transport Minister Lisa Raitt called it “unacceptable” that the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), the body responsible for ensuring Canadian airport security, waited to alert police.

“The safety of Canadians and the travelling public is our government's top priority,” said Raitt said in a statement Wednesday. 

But what can airport security officers do, what powers do they have and how does it affect passengers? Here’s a rundown of some key facts.

Who runs airport security?

Security in every airport across Canada is run by CATSA, a Crown corporation created in 2002 in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the U.S.

CATSA contracts private firms, such as GardaWorld Security, the largest privately-owned security company in the world, to work on the front lines, adhering to CATSA regulations.

According to CATSA, these officers are security cleared, rigorously trained and, to a certain degree, are explosive and weapons experts.

They comb through 68 million pieces of luggage every year and screen 48 million passengers.  Tens of thousands of contraband items are confiscated each year, ranging from pocket knives to illegal substances.

CATSA’s regulations are handed down by Transport Canada.

What are airport security officials allowed and not allowed to do?

Along with scanning and imaging, airport security staff verify boarding passes and can hold passengers at any point during the security screening process. But, that’s all they can do.

According to the Office of the Privacy Commission of Canada, security officers are not allowed to handle passports or other personal documents unless there is a “heightened risk condition” that could be mitigated through identification.

Those conditions are subject to change according to what the government deems to be a threat to Canadians.

Risk conditions are continually being assessed.- Mathieu Larocque, CATSA spokesperson

“Risk conditions are continually being assessed,” said Mathieu Larocque, a CATSA spokesperson. “Transport Canada in collaboration with law intelligence and law enforcement agencies is responsible for this assessment. They will share any pertinent information and we will take the appropriate actions.”

Airport security officers are mostly responsible for everyday security tasks such as making sure travellers strip off jackets, belts and shoes then send them through the X-ray machines with their carry-on luggage.

If someone arouses suspicion, officers carry out a “secondary screening,” which can consist of anything from another quick walk through the metal detector to a full physical search.

Passengers always have the right to decline a secondary screening and ask for alternative methods to a search if they are uncomfortable with touching. In a sense, travellers do relinquish their privacy rights at the door – but only on a voluntary basis.

So, can airport security detain passengers?

This point depends on who you talk to. CATSA says no, but experts say that they do have the power to detain a passenger who overtly breaks the law.

“If they see something potentially illegal, they contact the police,” said CATSA’s Larocque. “They have to intercept potential threat items and ensure that they do not enter the sterile area of airports and aircrafts.”

Beyond isolating the threat, the waters of protocol get a little murky. According to the federal government, security officers in general can make an arrest for any crime they witness directly on the property they are protecting.

“Certainly, you would argue that finding an explosive device in somebody’s possession is committing an offence. So, legally, they can be detained,” said former RCMP and security expert Leo Knight.

“Under the law, if a private security officer … detains somebody they find committing a criminal offence, the law says that they must turn that person over the police immediately,” added Knight.

CATSAhas no authority to detain anyone- Mathieu Larocque, CATSA spokesperson

However, according to Larocque, this doesn’t apply to the Crown corporation.

“CATSA has no authority to detain anyone,” said Larocque. “It’s not a CATSA policy.”

CATSA has a supervisor on the floor at all times who is empowered to make decisions. Airport security must identify a threat to a police officer, but it is unclear what they are meant to do with the alleged offender in the meantime if they have no authority to detain passengers.

According to the Privacy Commissioner, CATSA can, however, send passengers for “further investigation.”

Former police officer and security expert Ross McLean said security officers are allowed to hold perpetrators for the police, much like a mall security guard can detain a shoplifter until the police arrive.

What are passengers’ rights?

Airport officials have the right to search passengers, but that’s only with their consent.

“If you want to get on a flight you have to submit to the search,” said Knight.  “You can say no, but you won’t get on your flight.”

Should a traveller submit to a physical search, there must be two officers present of the same gender as the traveller. Also, according to the Privacy Commissioner, that traveller has the right to ask to be searched in a private room or a curtained-off space away from the curious eyes of other passengers.

Also, if your carry-on luggage is subject to search, passengers have every right to demand that officers wear gloves.

Once a traveller is through the security check all images taken and examined for concealed items -- such as those taken during the full body scan -- are purged immediately. According to the Privacy Commissioner, they are not recorded or stored. No personal information is connected to those images.

Every agency affiliated with air travel recommends that travellers research security guidelines and prepare for searches and pack appropriately to avoid these situations entirely.