Air safety? Baddies have the last laugh

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 November, 2010, 12:00am

The interception of mail bombs sent by militants from Yemen via FedEx and UPS last month was a dramatic reminder to air passengers that they could be flying with poorly screened cargo. It also emphasised how airport security is about reacting to what the bad guys have done, not what they're going to do next.

'The challenge is staying ahead of what the bad guys come up with, trying to be proactive rather than reactive,' says Lori Beckman, president of US company Aviation Security Consulting and former director of security at Denver International Airport.

One early catalyst for improved access control was an incident in the late 1980s. A disgruntled former mechanic who hadn't had his security badge confiscated hijacked a plane with a gun.

It's what Isaac Yeffet, former head of security for Israel's hypersecure flag carrier El Al, calls a 'patch on top of a patch' - successively reacting to previous threats with improved technologies in a security race in which the terrorists are always likely to be one step ahead: one lunatic comes up with a particularly wacky idea, and the whole global airport security industry tries to make sure that, if someone else tries exactly the same thing, they're foiled. It is now happening again, with security officials around the world rethinking air-cargo security after printer cartridges - which are not required for screening - were found to contain explosives and removed from passenger plans after a tip-off from Saudi authorities.

We have seen before how a new threat causes the authorities to react.

Witness the 100ml limit on liquids that can be taken onto aircraft, after a group of British men plotted to blow up at least 10 flights using peroxide-based explosives in 2006. 'The regulations say you can't take more than a certain amount of liquid on a plane, so you won't have enough to make a device,' says Steve Lawson, director of Australian company AvSec Consulting. 'But what if there are four of you travelling together ... The 9/11 hijackers were teams of four.'

Post-9/11, it became mandatory for the screening of passengers at US airports to be carried out or overseen by government officials; before that, it was mostly done by private contractors. And the technological escalation has intensified. 'People now think the worst of situations,' Beckman says.

X-ray machines replaced metal detectors, and now X-ray machines, in which organic matter, which explosives often are, shows up as a different colour, could be superseded by so-called puffer machines that can detect trace quantities of explosives by blowing air over passengers and analysing any microscopic particles that are disturbed. Then there are chemical sniffers - which can detect chemical residue by 'sniffing' a cloth that is first passed over a suspect item - useful if explosives are hidden inside a device such as a laptop containing a lot of electronic components indistinguishable from bomb parts.

Passenger screening, meanwhile, is moving from simple identification towards complex biometrics - fingerprints, retinal scans and facial pattern recognition. And the days of children being invited into the cockpit are gone; these days, cockpit doors tend to be bulletproof.

Then there are full-body scanners, which use either extremely high-frequency radio waves or advanced, radiation-detecting X-rays. They also remove your clothes - albeit in a virtual way.

Privacy aside, there are possible health implications of long-term exposure, plus limits to scanners' effectiveness. They can't detect explosives that have been inserted into a body. That might sound far-fetched, but al-Qaeda terrorist Abdullah Assiri managed to do just that when he detonated the half-kilo of explosives, reportedly hidden in his anal cavity, in the company of Saudi counter-terrorism chief Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, after getting through two layers of airport-style security and spending 30 hours with the prince's private guards.

Despite all the technology, in 2006 an elderly man drove through two sets of security gates and onto the runway at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport, pootling around for 23 minutes before he was apprehended.

It is difficult to measure success - the best result is nothing happening. As Lawson puts it: 'Given the cost of security technology and implementing it for an airline nowadays, especially when they're running as lean as they are, it's a bit difficult to persuade them to spend a lot of money on something that might happen.'

There are also limits to how much airport security can prevent. Lawson says Qantas, for example, monitored images of the mountains of Afghanistan after the start of the war there in 2001, because 'a guy with a shoulder-mounted weapon could bring a civil aircraft down'.

The problem, Beckman says, is the emphasis on shiny new machines that put people's minds at rest but might not be the best solution. 'The focus should be on people and activities, on behaviour detection, not on hardware.'

The events of 9/11, for example, happened not because of a particular screening failure, but because no one had thought of the possibility that terrorists armed with Stanley knives might try to fly planes into buildings. In other words, the issue, as much as security, is imagination.