Aviation Security – The New Norm

    Metal DetectorOn the 30th of December 2015, a family was departing an airport in North Carolina. The 10-year-old daughter was called aside for a frisk search. The father was outraged at the “aggressive” pat down and “groping” by the Transport Security Administration (TSA) agent. The father filmed the pat down and put it on YouTube. For the next week or so he gave a number of interviews condemning the TSA and asking why it was necessary to check a 10 year old so thoroughly.

    So, is this the new norm?

    It may be useful to look at why these procedures were introduced.

    Australia’s first ‘security incident’ was arguably on Qantas’ first overseas flight in 1935. Major Phillips of the Coldstream Guards and Lady Mountbatten had travelled by schooner from Tahiti to Sydney. They were returning to Europe from Australia and the first leg was by air to Singapore on Qantas. Major Phillips boarded the aircraft in Brisbane to be joined in Charleville by Lady Mountbatten. Major Phillips attempted to conceal his identity by travelling under the name of Wilson. The ticket agents asked Qantas’ Hudson Fysh for guidance. Hudson Fysh was apparently less than amused and replied, “We are sure you will realise with us the many unsatisfactory features connected with the booking of Lady Mountbatten and Major Phillips, alias Wilson. It is quite understood that this class of passenger will be in many instances very difficult to deal with and wish to alter their minds quite a bit. We would point out, however, that we cannot book passengers under assumed names.”

    As a security incident at the time and for some time after it was pretty minor, although today trying to fly under a false name would be considered much more serious.

    Aviation Security Really Starts

    I can remember going to Adelaide Airport in the late 1960s to meet someone off an Ansett B727 and we were allowed through the gate to greet them; safety kept us away from the aircraft,  certainly not security. However, things changed soon after that. The late 1960s and 70s saw a wave of attacks on aviation around the world. Terrorists learned how attractive aviation was as a target and one of the first forms of attack was hijacking.

    There were two major responses. The first was to make it more difficult to get a weapon on board an aircraft with the introduction of passenger screening. It was initially conducted on a ‘risk’ basis but, as with all processes, as one target becomes more difficult, the terrorist moves to another and, with time, passenger screening became the norm rather than the exception.

    The second was the creation of the air marshal concept. Air marshals really only have an anti-hijacking function. Today, more than 10 countries operate air marshal like units.

    The 1970s also saw the start of attacks against airports, notably Ben Gurion, Rome and Vienna. Probably the most visible innovation to counter those attacks was the introduction of armed police to airports, not simply as a patrol function, but as a counterterrorist response.

    1980 and 90s

    The 1980s and 1990s are when aviation security as it is known today formed into a global practice. Readers may remember being asked questions at check-in like, “Is this your bag?” Those were introduced to counter the dupe passenger. In 1986, Jordanian Nizar Hindawi tried to send his pregnant Irish girlfriend, Ann Murphy, from London’s Heathrow Airport to Israel with an improvised explosive device (IED) hidden in her suitcase. She had no idea about the device or that she was about to die. Then in 1988 an IED destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 270 people. The bomb was concealed in a radio cassette player in a checked bag.

    I joined Australian Airlines Security not long after that incident. Until 11 September 2001, together with Air India Flight 182, it was the touchstone for aviation security.

    Why was Pan Am 103 so important? The mistakes made were on so many levels and on their own would be another article. Some of the things about aviation security that Lockerbie highlighted include:

    • intelligence was ignored or at least not well distributed
    • Pan Am did not treat security seriously or professionally
      • supposedly, they had untrained dogs acting as sniffer dogs
      • they handled the media poorly
      • emergency planning was poor
    • the IED was in a bag that did not have a passenger on the aircraft
    • airside security in Malta was compromised, supposedly by a trusted insider
    • transfer baggage was not screened

    As a consequence of the Lockerbie bombing:

    • Pan Am, already financially fragile, went out of business soon after
    • intelligence was more frequently shared with those organisations that had a need to know
    • airlines realised that good aviation security were not simply regulatory and duty of care issues – it was important to the business and there was a fiscal component that could include the loss of the company
      • interestingly, in many cases good security also brought cost-effective measures with it
    • security, which until then had been part of an airline’s safety regime, moved to its own discipline
    • the industry and government realised that security processes should be practical and adhered to
    • government realised that it had a role in aviation security and regulators needed an intimate knowledge of aviation security and the impact of policy
    • passenger baggage reconciliation became one of the bedrocks of aviation security – a bag does not fly unless the passenger is on the same aircraft
    • the process of X-raying checked baggage started to become the norm
    • it was recognised that security processes should be flexible to meet the threat
    • the trusted insider became a factor
    • it was recognised that technology as an aviation security tool was the way of the future

    By the end of the 1980s, everything that is now understood as aviation security was pretty much in place and the 1990s were, thankfully, relatively quiet. Yes, some things did happen, but they did not impact the basic model. There was a focus on the trusted insider, which continues today.

    The 21st Century

    In September 2001, I was back in Adelaide for a possible strike and at my brother’s house laughing and having a beer when I asked him to move out of the way because he was blocking my view of the TV. My exact statement was, “Move over, I think an aircraft just flew into that building.” A couple of days later, I was in New York managing the on-site response to the September 11 attacks.

    It is impossible to underestimate the effect of September 11 on aviation security. It did not change the basics, but it did change the focus. It seems hard to realise now, but the hijackers took nothing onto any of the aircraft that was illegal. Knives with a blade length up to 100mm were allowed on an aircraft; box cutters were certainly allowed.

    No one had used an aircraft as a weapon or a bargaining tool until that time, nor have they since. Consequently, crew training was based on experience with hijackers – obey the hijacker, do not be aggressive and people should survive the incident. Some changes that occurred as a consequence of September 11 (note that this list only includes the basic changes; the full list would again be an article on its own):

    • crew training changed
    • cockpit doors were locked and made resistant
    • sharps were banned from the aircraft
    • no-fly lists were introduced
    • passenger screening and checked baggage screening were tightened
    • sky marshals were expanded
    • air cargo screening was introduced and air cargo tightened up

    Soon after September 11, terrorist Richard Reid attempted to ignite explosive devices hidden in his shoes on a flight from Paris to Miami. Consequently, security now look at shoes more closely and, in some places, require their removal for X-raying.

    In 2006, British officials foiled a plot to blow up aircraft flying from the UK to the US with liquid explosives hidden in carry-on bags. Consequently, passengers cannot take liquids, aerosols and gels onto an international flight.

    In 2009, Umar Faruk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate an explosive device concealed in his underwear on board Northwest flight 253. Body scanners are now used.

    Is the current aviation security the new norm? Yes. There will be modifications and maybe more procedures introduced. Security will probably become more efficient; it may even get Total Recall’s X-ray tunnel, but current measures are the basic model.

    I am sorry that a 10 year old was frisked and did not like it but, to be brutally honest, as she grows up she will need to get used to it or travel by road.

    Steve Lawson
    Steve Lawson has over 20 years’ experience in aviation security. He is a director of AvSec Consulting, which provides aviation consulting, along with tailored travel and security advice for individuals and organisations (www.idealintelligence.com). Steve can be contacted via email slawson@avsecconsulting.com or on 0404685103.