Editor's column by Louise Driscoll

Can we ever close loopholes in airport security?

Why we don't just need screening technology but technique, based on intelligence and data sharing to tackle evolving terrorist activity in the skies.

Can we ever close loopholes in airport security?Can we ever close loopholes in airport security?

Remove shoes – check. Separate laptop from bag – check. Place ‘rationed’ liquids and gels into clear bag – check.

Our regimented etiquette in the airport security line is borne out of evolving security threats to passengers travelling on commercial aircraft.

But sadly, these extra safety measures – from limiting liquids to taking off shoes have only been introduced at the security checkpoint after plots by al Qaeda militants to bring down passenger jets were foiled by authorities.

On Monday, the UK government was quick to ban printer cartridges weighing over 500 grams in carry-on luggage after it emerged two Chicago-bound parcels containing explosives hidden in toner cartridges had travelled in the bellies of cargo and passenger jets, before they were seized by authorities in the UK and Dubai last Friday.

The deadly packages, posted in Yemen and picked up in-transit, were only uncovered after a tip-off from Saudi Arabian authorities.

The discovery exposes critical, weak links in the air cargo system that security experts have long pointed out.

The first package, intercepted in Dubai, had flown from the Yemeni capital, Sana’a on two Qatar Airways passenger jets: the first to Doha, and on a second flight to Dubai.

Freight is subjected to inconsistent screening checks from country to country – a revelation that doesn’t inspire us with much confidence when often unchecked cargo packages are mixed in with luggage on passenger jets.

In the US, the Transport Security Administration (TSA), responsible for the country’s cargo and aviation security, is trying to address these gaping holes in passenger and cargo screening procedures and plans to announce new rules for all inbound freight.

Currently, cargo on all US domestic passenger planes is screened, but not all of it is checked on international flights. In the UK, checks are even more lax.

But we can expect that to change, with increasing rhetoric that more checks and balances in air cargo are essential.

But this is just another example of governments taking a reactive rather than pre-emptive approach to ensuring our safety in the skies.

The patchwork of inconsistencies that apply to air cargo also extend to passenger security at the airport.

Advanced airport screening technology, sniffer dogs, or staff opening parcels have never been instrumental methods in foiling security threats – but intelligence tip-offs have.

I’m sure frequent travellers have experienced first-hand the frustrating variations in passenger screening at gateways in different parts of the world.

If you happen to be in Australia on a domestic flight, you can fill up your carry-on bag with liquid over 100mls, including bottled water, without fear of confiscation – but not at most other gateways.

In the US, laptops can stay in bags in the domestic security line, but must be separated and put in a tray if you’re flying internationally.

In the UK, you’re usually only requested to remove your boots or high-heeled shoes, with random spot checks on footwear – but in the US, the mantra is “all shoes off please”.

And another surprise: airports in the EU have free reign to choose from a range of security screening equipment, to suit their passenger mix. This explains why you may notice inconsistent checks being carried out at European airports.

Until there is a level playing field – or a ‘true’ common security standard at airports worldwide, the aviation industry is at risk of being caught out by opportunists.

Despite these irregularities, more layers of airport security are being added as new ‘threats’ emerge. The measures are often coined as ‘security theatre’ – a buzzword to describe enhanced procedures designed to make us feel safer, but which aren’t serving their true purpose.

British Airways’ chairman, Martin Broughton sparked a political debate just a few days before the cargo bombs surfaced by calling for an end to the UK’s “redundant” security measures involving removing shoes and separate checks for laptops – that he points out to be “kowtowing to US security checks”. I wonder, with cargo’s weaknesses in the spotlight, if he is eating his words now?

But he has a point. Remember the shoe bomber, with the unforgettable alliterative name – Richard Reid, who tried and failed to ignite plastic explosives in his shoes on a Miami-bound flight back in 2001?

Nearly a decade on, we’re still taking off our shoes at the security gate. The perceived threat to passengers evolves quickly: from liquids to hard-to-detect plastic explosives.

What will the future be like for us if more layers are added? The EU has again pushed back its deadline to allow us to carry liquids and gels over 100mls into hand luggage. For transit passengers in Europe, restrictions could be lifted in 2011, and in 2013 for all other passengers, but then again, isn’t this just wishful thinking?

The technology’s ability to detect threat from ‘non-threat’ liquids is still being perfected, but without a universal, international standard, the industry continues to make snail pace progress. We’re likely to see scattered approaches at airports in future – some allowing us to bring full-sized liquid bottles while others not.

Reactive measures continue. On Christmas day last year, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried and failed to detonate plastic explosives in his underwear on a flight to Detroit.

The result? Backscatter X-ray full-body scanners that can see through clothing continue to be rolled out at airports as an extra security layer – able to detect concealed items in places a little more out of reach for airport ‘frisk’ searchers.

Even so, they’re still an experiment and have not yet been approved by regulatory authorities as a replacement for existing screening methods.

Now, the US and UK governments are looking for a silver bullet: sophisticated technology to detect potential plastic explosives in air cargo packets – technology which is already commonly used to screen our hold luggage.

Why not use these machines to screen passengers? There’s a substantial cost involved, of course.

While extra costs could severely impact the cargo business and would inevitably be passed on to the consumer through higher postage fees.

But let’s move away from knee-jerk reactions. We need long-term, sustainable and intelligence-based approaches to cargo and passenger screening.

We need Intelligence-focused solutions

You only have to look back at the security scares in the last decade to appreciate that screening technology, sniffer dogs, or staff opening parcels have never been instrumental methods in foiling security threats – but intelligence tip-offs have.

The case for more detailed, intelligence-based passenger profiling – if carried out in the right way (not based on ethnicity but unusual travel patterns)- becomes more compelling as new security threats surface.

The aviation industry and MI5 must stay ahead of the game by engaging in more information sharing. When we book a flight with an airline, they store our data to better understand our travel habits – and there is far more that could be done, including intercepting abnormalities in travel patterns.

Technique is arguably more important, or as critical as the technology. Catch these ‘targets’ before they get to the airport – not while they try to pull off a new trick on a plane filled with hundreds of passengers.

And let’s not forget that security checks are only as good as the human eyes interpreting the threats that technology can miss.

Louise

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