Security checkBetween June and September 2005, the Rt Hon Sir John Wheeler PC DL JP KStJ undertook “an independent review of airport security and policing for the government of Australia” – that was the last major external review of aviation security in Australia. I would respectfully suggest that the Wheeler review was an animal of its time; it engaged with industry rather than undertook tests to identify vulnerabilities. While I am not suggesting that the recommendations of the review were not warranted, I do hold a view about how they were implemented, but that is for another article.

A lot has happened in aviation security in the intervening 13 years, so it can be argued that it is time for another external review and perhaps one that delves a little deeper than the Wheeler review.

In the context of full disclosure, in July 2017 we contacted the then infrastructure minister (among others) to propose an external review that, unlike the Wheeler review, had a very strong operational focus. We were not so much interested in what the Government and local aviation industry thought were vulnerabilities, since insiders, me included, tend to focus on areas that interest them or with which they are familiar. It is the equivalent of the ‘you never see what needs repairing in your own home’ syndrome.

More importantly, you are familiar with what can and cannot be exploited and you know the limitations of equipment and processes. I could walk through any screening point in the world with a weapon. (I do not by the way, but I know I can.) I also know that it would be reasonably easy to destroy an aircraft at the boarding gate and that most airports in Australia do not have anything in place to stop the types of attacks I can think of. (I am not going to include here how to do that, you will just have to take me on trust.)

It is also less likely, but not unfeasible, there is a threat from industry insiders and attackers are more likely to be from the public. So, any review should look at what are attractive weapons or systems to outsiders and where they could use them to attack aviation. The professional terrorist should not be forgotten, but again their view of what may be an easy way to attack aviation may be different from mine.

Our proposal was to identify those areas of aviation security that are most vulnerable so that resources and expenditure could be most effectively applied.

We thought that it was counterproductive to continue to spend more and more money on aviation security unless it was being spent wisely and addressing actual vulnerabilities.

Our proposal was that it would be best to undertake the review at both a high level and at an operational level. At the high level, we proposed an oversight team that included:

  • Assistant Administrator for the Office of Security Operations for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (the person in charge of all US airports)
  • Head of the Counter Terrorism Security Advisors (CTSAs) for the New Scotland Yard
  • National Security Adviser to the Prime Minister of Israel and Head of Israel’s Counter Terrorism Bureau
  • Security Operations Manager for Ben Gurion Airport
  • Head of Security for El Al

They were to be supported by equally eminent people from Australia’s aviation sector. It does not matter how familiar you are with international aviation, there are nuances to local aviation, so the local members would provide the Australian operating context. It was about a blue-ribbon group as you could get.

For the operational part of the review, we proposed teams that would undertake a series of vulnerability tests. One team would undertake intelligence gathering and the other attempt to use the intelligence reports to exploit any identified vulnerabilities. The teams we proposed using have conducted and do conduct similar exercises in other parts of the world, including Europe and the US.

You would expect that the cost would be exorbitant, but we thought we could undertake the review quite economically and, as it turns out, our proposed budget was just over half a percent of the ‘injection’ that the Federal Government put into aviation security in that year’s budget. With respect to that injection, I do not have details of everywhere it is being spent, but I am not sure that all of it is being spent in the most effective areas.

I will confess that most of these people in the high-level team were giving us ‘mates rates’ (most have been friends for many years) and as hard as it is to believe they are public servants in the truest sense, they want to make a change for the better.

The answer we received from the Federal Government was, basically, thanks but we will undertake a review internally. At about this point, I expect some readers may say that I am upset that our proposal was not accepted; if I am to be honest, there is a little of that. However, this is not the greatest disappointment we have had as a business and if you graded my frustration, maybe 10 percent is disappointment that we did not get the work, but 90 percent of my disappointment is that the Government thinks that an internal review is at any level acceptable.

I think a large part of the Government’s decision was based on ‘what if they find something wrong as a department?’ More importantly, what if they find that they have made errors personally? Not so much the minister, but those advising him.

Before I go further, I think that there are no major issues in Australian aviation security; in fact, there are things that I think are better here than elsewhere. For example, our Aviation Security Identification Card (ASIC) model is probably the best in the world and, as I have said earlier, I think our screeners are among the best in the world. However, I do know of vulnerabilities and I think that in the last decade or so as a sector, Australia has gone from being a leader to a follower.

So, the purpose of this article is to suggest that it is time to undertake an external review of aviation security. After this article, I have no doubt that we would be at the bottom of the list of organisations selected to undertake such a review, but it needs to be done by someone. Getting a group like the one we proposed would be difficult, at the price we proposed probably impossible, but something a little more than the Wheeler review should be undertaken.

Most importantly, it should be conducted in two parts. Firstly, a group should identify vulnerabilities; not just, “I can get this through a screening point”; as I said earlier, Australian screening is among the best in the world, but to be honest that is too obvious. Once the vulnerabilities have been identified, the higher level panel can suggest changes to legislation and regulations and where money and effort can be best spent to ensure Australian aviation is not just secure, but that it returns to being a leader in the field.

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 ( Steve can be contacted via email or on 0404685103.