The Ever-changing Airport Security Challenge

The terrorist threat to airports and aviation generally has existed since 1930, when the first recorded hijacking of an aircraft took place in Peru. Hijacking and sabotage became popular expressions of personal political-economic frustration in the 1960s ('Take me to Havana') and were often carried out by individuals with little actual competence. Indeed, many of them were deranged and easily identified. Even the infamous 'Carlos the Jackal', who tried to bazooka El Al at Paris Orly twice in a week, was an undisciplined renegade who rode his luck, an attitude typical of his contemporaries. Both locally and internationally, the appropriate authorities were initially slow to respond to the growing threat. Eventually, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) was able to coordinate an adequate response through a series of international Conventions (not all of which were quickly taken up by its members) and its Annex 17 'measures for the protection of the security of international civil air transport.' Subsequently, a whole raft of governmental and quasi-governmental organizations have been drawn into the battle, including the airlines' representative IATA, the European Union (which largely takes a lead from ECAC, the European Civil Aviation Conference), the Airports Council International (a non-profit organization representing 1,400 airports), the Air Transport Association in the US and, latterly, the influential pilots' unions.

In fact, terrorism directed at airports had started to decrease since the mid 1980s. Maybe it was going out of fashion in favour of truck bombs and suicide attacks but it was equally true that the security measures introduced were starting to have a positive effect. However, participants in all new 'industries' increase their level of professionalism over time and terrorism is no different. Neither was aviation terrorism going to go away entirely. Collectively it is the perfect target. There are many immobile people, often grouped together, and of many nationalities.

The industry retains its 'sexy' cachet and at the same time its implements, the airports and airlines, are recognized as representing the State. It also has the widest economic impact.

Watershed: Lockerbie

The first watershed event of recent times was the bombing of an Air India flight from Toronto in 1985, but it is barely mentioned these days while that of Pan Am103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988 most certainly is, despite there having been less casualties. The difference is that the majority of victims were, for the first time, innocent US citizens. The terrorists had upped the ante and brought the world's superpower directly into the fight.

A number of countries toughened their airport security after Lockerbie, notably the UK where measures were introduced to ensure that all baggage would eventually undergo some sort of pre-departure inspection. In many ways the UK has become the leading exponent of anti-terrorism activity since Lockerbie, aided by relentless exposure to the actions of the IRA since 1969 (although the IRA rarely specifically targeted airports other than Belfast Aldergrove and London Heathrow). We should not underestimate the degree of success, especially in the aviation environment. There are many 'scares' at Britain's airports but few actual incidents. Ironically, the US itself did not benefit to the same degree. In the wake of the Lockerbie atrocity the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which then had responsibility for aviation security, made sterling efforts to try to ensure there were no repeats. With hindsight, however, it would appear that it may have taken its eye off the ball somewhat, focusing too much on the possible introduction of bombs on to aircraft and protecting its international services whilst overlooking the growing menace of new forms of terrorism on its own soil. This is despite the fact there were several warnings. The 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center was by no means the only international terrorist incident in the city in that decade and the Oklahoma bombing of 1995 killed hundreds. These incidents raise questions about the co-ordination of the response that are appropriate in other countries too.

Post-11 September

The 11 September attack introduced a new concept: the hijacking of the four aircraft with the aim of their eventual destruction (sabotage) coupled with aggression against surface targets, which on this occasion were not of an aviation nature but were instead government buildings and commercial centres. Another key difference was that the motives of the leading hijackers were both fixed and unconditional and there was absolutely no room for any sort of negotiation because there was nothing to negotiate. These elements gave birth to a whole new paradigm that requires human skill sets as much as technological advance to defeat it.

Several academic groups have reported on 9/11, offering similar findings. A paper by German academics1 focused on no less than ten separate failings in security on 11 September 2001, some of which in retrospect may have been anticipated, others not. They concluded that the only possibility to stop a determined attack on an airport or airline by someone prepared to die in the attempt is via the successful interception of the attacker or action to prevent the use of a weapon. Obvious perhaps, but the rub is that employing the preventative measures to do so erodes passenger confidence and thereby economic performance. The research and development of new, cost-effective hard measures and their introduction on a global scale is therefore necessary. Some of the proposed measures are draconian indeed and include training of selected crewmembers in advanced defence skills and the strategic and covert placement of non-lethal weapons on board aircraft such as Mace (in addition to the deployment of armed sky marshals on all flights). Another measure involves continuous combat readiness of fighter aircraft at 'appropriate' airports. Separately, research continues into the possibility of taking remote control of hijacked commercial aircraft, or even of having them flown entirely by automatic pilot, an off-shoot of the military development of unmanned aerial vehicles like the CIA's 'Drone.'

But one must ask what sort of individual would wish to continue to travel by air when faced by all these negative images and messages. IATA has taken a lead role in combating terrorism and is equally vociferous about the need to identify potential terrorists in advance. It puts its faith in technological developments such as biometric applications whilst not losing sight of the need for airports and airlines to facilitate their clients journey at all stages. It calls its programme 'Simplifying Passenger Travel' and it is notably suited to the situation in North America, where the system was already stagnating from congestion even before 9/11 and where the talk is already starting to revert towards the need for more runways and terminals and away from security. Transport Security Administration

The reaction in the US was to shift transport security onto a completely new organization: the Transport Security Administration (TSA), which grew from 0 to 57,000 employees in one year and is possibly the fastest-growing peacetime organization ever. The TSA did not have an auspicious start. It had to introduce measures that have caused delays on top of those already brought on by congestion. Baggage screening, belatedly, has been the main and most contentious issue but TSA has also busied itself with measures such as reinforcement of cockpit doors, expanding the (armed) sky marshal programme, carrying out employee background checks and initiating training programmes, amongst many others. It also cooperates extensively with the private sector throughout the implementation process. The TSA was widely criticized for its failure to prioritize work and inability to tackle the new threats that come along almost daily. Daily, it must balance routine and sometimes-trivial tasks with others that are far more critical, whilst being politically correct at all times. It also succeeded in its aim of ensuring baggage inspection at each of the country's 429 primary commercial airports by the end of December 2002, even if the procedures at some of them are patchwork and 'make do'. The original Head of the TSA, who focused on immediate tough security at the expense of passenger facilitation, was replaced by a more passenger and airline friendly Chief who is more inclined to balance threat and risk. The Homeland Security Bill, which led to the creation of the Homeland Security Department in November 2002, further centralizes the anti-terrorism fight. The DHS includes the TSA but not some other important elements, like the FBI and CIA. The cost of all this is a budget that adds up to $40 billion over five years.


In Britain there is less centralization, indeed some call for even more organizations to combat airport terrorism. There is a higher baseline of existing measures than in the US because of the reaction in Britain to the Pan Am/Lockerbie incident, but there is a lack of experience with the new threat manifested in 9/11. This is evident in the many warnings regularly issued but then sometimes withdrawn. Hints aboutpotential gas, biological and radiological attacks may detract from the reality that an attack in the UK is more likely to be at or via an airport. The European Commission has been at odds with its own Parliament about the co-ordination of aviation security measures and how costs should be apportioned, but after much wrangling an agreement was reached and a study will begin early in 2003 on how the burden is to be shared between airports, airlines and the member states to finance new measures to create uniform security across Europe. Also, the Commission and the TSA are due to meet specifically with the intention of preventing the expansion of internationally divergent approaches to the security problem. If there is one other positive piece of news emerging it is that many individual countries across the world have been proactive in introducing their own airport security processes without waiting to see how others do it. No longer does any country's government believe that 'it can't happen here'.


For the moment the emphasis has shifted away from aviation terrorism and on to tourism, with the dreadful bombings at Bali and Mombassa, although this would not necessarily have been the case had the 'Shoe Bomber' succeeded in lighting his exploding trainers or if a SAM missile had indeed struck the Israeli charter flight at Mombassa on the same day as the bombing last November. The aforementioned biometric solutions (iris, palm, fingerprint and face recognition) hold out much promise but they are not the 'silver bullet' many expect them to be; they are an emerging technology and will remain so for some time. In the meantime human attributes and applications will continue to be of primary importance. As Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States, so famously said: 'Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty'.


1 Professor Steinhäusler, Institute for International Studies, Stanford USA, and colleagues

David J Bentley is a researcher, consultant andwriter in the aviation industries

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