The screening solution

Heightened security controls were put in place at Indonesian airports in late May, following the discovery of a bag containing “liquid materials used to make explosives” in a passenger lounge at Juanda International Airport.

Airport authorities said the discovery was made after a facilities search prompted by a threat to explode a bomb mid-air on an unspecified Garuda flight to Jakarta. Little is presently known about the materials found, whether they formed a viable device and who may have been behind the attempt to down an airliner mid-flight.

Concern is being voiced that it may have been the work of Al Qaeda-linked militants, who have been behind a string of terror attacks across the country that have killed more than 260 people over the past eight years. Emerging just three weeks after the US Special Forces killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at his compound hideout in Pakistan, this incident may indicate that militants affiliated with the terrorist organisation are once again targeting the civil aviation sector with a type of weapon there’s no deployed protection against.

The threat
The liquid explosive threat to civil aviation first hit the news headlines in August 2006, following discovery of a plot to down multiple transatlantic airliners whilst in flight from the United Kingdom to the USA and Canada.

That plot initially led to an outright ban on Liquids, Aerosols and Gels (LAGs) being carried in passenger hand baggage. Latterly, the limits we have today (100ml per item contained in a 1 liter bag) were imposed on passengers. These restrictions were put in place pending development of screening solutions able to determine whether passenger presented LAGs were a threat or entirely benign.

Under the direction and guidance of the European Commission (EC) and the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC), several companies stepped to the plate in the intervening period to devise hardware and software solutions. These solutions were thoroughly tested under the ECAC Common Evaluation Programme (CEP), declared fit for purpose and categorised and approved for active service deployment in airports across the region.

European Union (EU) regulation therefore requires airports with transit passenger traffic to deploy these solutions forthwith, whilst all other airports are required to deploy a LAGs threat detection capability by 2013. So, where are they?

Incompetence, intransigence & interference
The master plan to addressing this clear and present threat to the wellbeing of all of us who travel by air was incredibly simple. The legislative body (EU) set the goals, tasked the administrative body (EC) to manage the project and required the principal institution (ECAC) to coordinate the activity.

Incompetence at all levels has shifted the master plan from an incredibly simple sequence of processes to a constantly shifting nightmare of processes, that have conspired to leave the travelling public unprotected against one of the most serious threats to civil aviation today, despite the best effort of technologists.

Take, for example, the setting of goals. In the very earliest stages of this process, a decision was taken to involve particular stakeholders (regulators, airlines, airports and technologists) within the project. This stakeholder group agreed a set of outcomes and these outcomes dictated the categorisation of the solutions produced.

ECAC began evaluating and approving LAG screening solutions in the autumn of last year. At almost the same time the principal airport representative body, Airports Council International – Europe (ACI-Europe), withdrew collective acceptance and simply declared the approved solutions as not for purpose.

Despite a bronze, silver and gold standard having been achieved, ACI-Europe stuck its heels in, demanding a platinum standard and nothing else would suffice for its members.

This latter capability required that technologists come up with a solution that enabled airports to screen hand baggage for all potential threats in a single pass and without a need for passengers to separate LAG products. Given the complexity of a typical x-ray image and the difficulties involved in extracting threat information from the available data stream, the screening capability demanded is simply not available from any vendor as yet.

Thus, an impasse emerged. On the one hand EU regulation required that airports install LAGs capable screening solutions at transit airports by end April 2011, but on the other hand airports cried poverty, denigrated the available solutions and simply said no to the legislators.

Enter Washington
Then, with the deadline looming and a face off between the EC and ACI-Europe became ever more likely, Washington entered into the affray and really set the cat amongst the pigeons. 24 hours before EU regulation was supposed to take effect, Washington sent a letter to Brussels, stating that it would require additional security measures applied to all US bound flights, if transit liquid restrictions were to be lifted. The impact of this intervention was felt across the region almost immediately.

Shortly after the letter’s receipt – and roughly at the same President Obama signed secret orders instructing US Special Forces to go get that country’s principal bogey man – airports were told to defer implementation pending further instruction. Ostensibly issued to ensure passengers were not faced with inconsistent security measures at airport checkpoints across the region, behind the scenes meetings and correspondence reveal a rather different and darker reasoning to order deferred implementation.

The European Commission organised a special meeting of the EU Regulatory Committee to discuss the situation with Member States and the United States on 4 May. An ‘agreement in principle’ on a way forward was reached, that, subject to approval by the participants, would have been finalised quickly and allowed Member States and airports to get back on track with the screening of LAGs. Washington declared that the ‘agreement in principle’ was not acceptable a few days later.

Further meetings of the Regulatory Committee have followed but have not resulted in any concrete proposals to facilitate the implementation of EU Regulation 297/2010 at press deadline time. Instead, the EC simply states that it remains committed to the 2013 deadline when all LAGs product must be screened.

This poses the rather interesting question as to who’s wagging the dog’s tail within the EC?

Paying the price
When companies step up to the plate to develop solutions to pressing national security problems, there’s a natural expectation that once they are assessed and approved, active service deployment will commence promptly and a return on investment will be seen in fairly short order.

Companies on the EU approved vendor list have collectively invested an estimated US$250 million of mostly private equity funding, to develop the tools needed to guard against liquid or gel based explosive being used to down an airliner in flight. Having seen a short term return on this invested ripped from beneath their feet at the 11th hour, many of these companies are questioning whether such heavy investment in EU projects constitute a safe bet and some are actively contemplating legal action to recover losses.

Vague promises that the EU remains committed to the 2013 for airport compliance with regulation don’t cut the mustard in the real world of business. From conversation with many senior executives, it’s been made abundantly clear that when the EU goes cap in hand to industry to solve really big issues in the future, it had better come up with a damned sight better master plan offering fiscal support and guaranteed investment outcomes. If the rarified EU fantasy world delivers anything less, the answer from the real world of business will most likely be a flat no, non, nein.

So, where does the fiasco leave crew and passengers? They’re the electorate; they either work for an airline or pay through the nose to fly with one. They’re the people the aviation industry survives on and creams every penny it can out of.

Promises and platitudes are all well and good whilst airports haggle over the cent on the dollar or penny in the pound, but the events of a decade ago show that the public in particular votes with its collective feet when shafted.

When 19 men boarded four planes and flew three of them into two of the most iconic buildings in the world on the morning of September 11, 2001, their actions decimated public confidence in the ability of this industry to meet threats with solutions head on and challenged its very survival. The numbers wracked up from that event make grown men cry and prompt a couple of straightforward questions.

When a liquid explosive device results in one of your planes falling out of the sky, which side of the garden fence will you be sitting on?

Bean count by all means, but history has a disturbing tendency to repeat itself, with often alarming regularity.

If the liquid explosive discovery in an airport lounge in Indonesia is anything to go by, this threat will likely be visited upon a major airport elsewhere and sometime soon.

Surely, it’s not a space and time you want to be in on your watch?

Written by Chris Yates, principal, Yates Consulting

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