Post September 11, there is no excuse for lax security for air travel

Daniel Wagner says growing aviation industry should have dealt with gaps

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2014, 7:33pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 2:24am

Like many who have travelled extensively around the world, I have seen my share of questionable practices regarding security procedures at airports and on planes. Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, these range from a cockpit door being left open throughout a domestic flight in Pakistan to no security protocol at all at an airport in Papua New Guinea.

The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, and the presumption of foul play, have raised concerns about the gaps and inconsistencies in airport and airline security.

A wide array of issues remain to be addressed. How is it that, 12 years after September 11, and all the trillions of dollars that have been spent on ramping up global security, stolen passports can still be used to purchase airline tickets? Why is it that neither Thailand (where two tickets for MH370 were purchased using false passports), Malaysia (where the tickets were used), nor China (where the passengers were heading) referenced the Interpol database of stolen passports to screen the two Iranians who used them?

Why is it that flight data is still not transmitted from an aircraft to an airline's headquarters, but instead continues to be stored in a plane's black box? Why is it that a transponder can be switched off at will, and cannot be overridden remotely?

Given the incredible speed with which the aviation industry has grown and continues to grow, these are basic questions that should have been addressed long ago. A significant part of the problem is the availability of human and financial resources, as well as the consistency of technical capabilities.

Differences in approach to airport and airline security on a national level also complicate the picture.

Take, for example, two airports in Asia. Although the Ninoy Aquino International Airport is approved as safe by the US Federal Aviation Administration, air passengers arriving in Singapore from Manila must have their cabin baggage screened before they may enter Changi Airport. Either the US agency is mistaken in having approved the Philippine airport as being safe, or the Singapore government has little faith in the agency or the Philippine government. The perceived incongruence is noteworthy.

Much may be learned on this subject from the Israelis, who have established the gold standard in maintaining airport and airline security. Israel's security protocol is achieved through a combination of comprehensive due diligence, common sense and consistency, but also an emphasis on hi-tech gadgetry, hidden surveillance cameras and human intelligence.

The Israelis place a high degree of importance on their ability to screen passengers through individual questioning, reading facial expressions, eye movement and body language. El Al's safety record is superlative, as a result.

Many airport authorities around the world have sought to benefit from the Israelis' approach to airport security, though none use the entire range of tools at their disposal. In the end, limitations on financial and human resources, and preferred methodologies, determine just how thorough or inadequate security protocols can be.

Unfortunately, it is taking yet another tragedy to focus minds, governments and budgets on the problem. There is a lot to be said for emphasising eye contact, behavioural cues and instinct when addressing the subject of airport security. The question is whether governments and airlines are willing to devote the resources necessary to enhancing security this way.

As of today, we are a long way from achieving that objective.

Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the book, Managing Country Risk