Turn On Your Mobile Phone, Sir

Turn on mobile phone for airline securityThe new airline passenger screening requirements coming out of the US seem to be an over-reaction to intelligence that al-Qaeda and like-minded groups are focussed on perfecting an explosive device that could be hidden in shoes, electronics or cosmetics. The information is, at least in part, credible, but the way in which screeners have been expected to respond is lacking in common sense and simply serves to unnecessarily inconvenience the travelling public.

Occasional threat alerts are, of course, good for the security sector, particularly at a time when counter-terrorism budgets are under pressure.

The latest US requirement – for passengers to turn on electronic items – is a nonsense and will simply add to screening delays. A small item like a smartphone could not contain enough explosive to do more than injure the people closest to it. It could, however, be used to detonate an improvised explosive device (IED) in the checked-in baggage in the hold of the aircraft, so it is actually better for phones to have flat batteries. An IED in checked-in baggage should, of course, be detected before the baggage is loaded onto the aircraft, but that cannot be guaranteed.

If someone as competent as Ibrahim al-Asiri, the al-Qaeda bomb-maker, was going to build an IED in a laptop, the obvious methodology would be to build in two circuits: one to show that the laptop works and one to detonate the IED. Turning it on at the screening point proves nothing. Some discrete functions on a laptop could, in any case, be used to detonate an inbuilt explosive which would negate the requirement for two circuits. However, any explosive in a laptop should be picked up at the carry-on screening point when the laptop passes through the dual-energy x-ray system. The same should be true of an explosive in any large electronic device.

The rest of the world usually has little choice but to fall into line when it comes to security screening requirements for aircraft headed to the US, particularly as North America-bound flights have attracted most of the terrorist attacks since 9/11. But some of the requirements seem to make little sense for flights starting outside the US and headed to other destinations.

In my view, it is time we revisited the whole issue of aviation security screening. The main aim should be to prevent anything going onto an aircraft that could damage the aircraft and cause it to crash. It should not be about preventing items from going on board that could injure people. We all recognise that violence from others is a potential threat in our daily lives.

The reinforced cockpit doors now prevent violent persons from getting to the pilots, which was a significant concern from an aircraft endangerment perspective. Therefore, we should be able to live with small pointed objects and metal cutlery on flights. If we could be sure of an Air Security Officer on every international flight, that would allow us to have an even more liberal carry-on regime.

The public is routinely told that enhanced security screening measures are for their safety. Most passengers grudgingly accept that security authorities know best, and tolerate new screening requirements without questioning them.

But there are so many inconsistencies in security screening today, it is hard to know where to start. For example, passengers are often required to remove their shoes because of an alert at the metal detection portal but not otherwise. However, shoe bombs recovered so far have not had enough metal in them to cause a portal to alarm. Shoes that set off the metal detector invariably do so because they have metal supports in them. Heated shoes from China have also activated metal detectors because they contain elements and batteries. Given the credibility of the shoe bomb threat, it makes sense for all shoes to be removed and screened along with other carry-on baggage items through the dual-energy x-ray system. There is little sense in requiring passengers to remove their belts, which slows down the outflow from the screening area.

International travel underlines regional screening inconsistencies. I recently travelled on an Air France flight from Paris Charles De Gaulle (CDG) to London Heathrow and was surprised to see passengers hand-carrying liquor bottles in transparent sealed plastic bags onto the aircraft. They had bought them after passing through screening. We all know from novelty flaming cocktails that some liquor is highly flammable; vodka for example can be 100 per cent proof. Two 75cl bottles of flammable liquid could be used to cause a dangerous fire on an aircraft.

We should not discard the possibility that the new intelligence is deliberately intended to worry the US and perhaps cause security screeners to look in the wrong place. Al-Asiri is known to have developed at least one internal IED with his brother Abdullah as the suicide bomber. Hard-to-detect internal IEDs are a far more credible threat than mobile phone bombs.

Another strange aspect at Paris CDG was having my passport checked three times against my boarding pass – which is pointless. It ensures there is a match between the two but that is only useful if passports are checked against a database of persons of interest or the Interpol stolen passports database. Ironically, terrorists usually seem to travel on their own passports. Those using subterfuge to travel are more likely to be career criminals or economic migrants trying to cross borders illegally – as was the case with Flight MH370.

Delays imposed by the screening process are likely to annoy passengers and get them in the wrong frame of mind for boarding the aircraft. It would be interesting to check the background to air rage incidents to see whether screening problems have been a causative factor.

Travellers are often surprised at who gets pulled over at the screening point for additional attention. It is politically incorrect these days to focus directly on young men of particular ethnic backgrounds, so we often see secondary screening directed at the elderly, the young, sporting teams, businessmen, and so on. Profiling is a contentious issue, but we waste time screening a lot of the wrong people for explosive traces. A better approach would be to fast-track sports teams and the various groups that do not pose a problem, and focus on the young men who potentially do.

Clive Williams
Clive Williams is a visiting professor at the ANU’s Centre for Military and Security Law and an adjunct professor at ADFA