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The aviation world has suffered its fair share of near and actual calamity during the past 14 months. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab exposed disconnected dots with his attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight in late December of 2009. Faisal Shahzad illuminated the fallacy that the dots had been reconnected, when he almost skipped the United States aboard an Emirates flight after the attempted Time Square bombing in early May 2010. Air freight came under scrutiny when already in-flight improvised explosive devices were discovered at airports in the United Arab Emirates and United Kingdom in mid October 2010. A suicide bomber walked into a Russian airport and simply blew himself up to devastating effect in late January 2011.
Such events do not engender public confidence in oft repeated governmental and industry assurances that everything that can be done to ensure the safety of those of us who regularly travel by air is actually being done.
Each of these aforementioned events has exposed the soft underbelly of the global aviation security regime and emphasised, rather too succinctly for comfort, that the industry remains a potent and high value target. Thus, intelligence gathering and dissemination, immigration controls, outsourcing of checkpoint and cargo screening, access control and effective policing of aviation facilities, have all come under the glare of public scrutiny, with a somewhat less than adequate picture having emerged.
The most devastating attack to have occurred so far, is the suicide bombing at Domodedovo International Airport on the outskirts of Moscow. It is the city’s busiest international airport, the primary gateway for many of the world’s major airlines and has long been viewed as one of the more secure airports within the Russian Federation.
Domodedovo bolstered the security afforded to airlines and the travelling public, following a double mid-flight suicide bombing six years ago. This passenger focused security architecture remains a robust and well respected feature of airport operations.
A certain grim inevitability surrounded what happened at the airport. The bomber struck at a peak travel time calculated to claim the maximum number of lives and within a publicly accessible and busy area of international arrivals.
This was just the type of attack that many of us who brainstorm potential threats to the industry have warned consistently about over the years. It could be foreseen that those with intent to do harm would sooner or later figure that that airports themselves as well as the aircraft using them are just as high profile a target.
This suicide attack could just as easily have occurred at any other major international airport anywhere else in the world and should now prompt a much closer examination of how we go about protecting such highly accessible public spaces unobtrusively but effectively.
Failure to address this fundamental flaw in the security of the aviation system will inevitably lead to such an event occurring again. One only need image a similar but simultaneous attack being carried out at the peak travel in London Heathrow’s multiple terminals, to generate an all too graphic picture in the mind. Such large airports are the strategic linchpins of the global air transport network. A shut-down at one can have a staggeringly big operational and economic impact right across the network.
It’s worth reminding that the psychological impact of a major terrorist strike on the travelling public can be profound. Following the attacks on New York and Washington D.C. very nearly a decade ago, travellers avoided flying by whatever means possible. This led to a fall in scheduled air traffic of 15 per cent; a worldwide contraction of the airline industry, the loss of almost 100,000 jobs, grounding of some 2,000 aircraft and the worst ever losses for the global aviation sector.
Such potentially stark consequences should be incentive enough to address the fundamental question as to how best to enhance the security of airport terminals. It’s simply not possible to lock down these major transport hubs and make them no go zones, so what options do we have available?
Much greater application of behavioural analysis and profiling techniques but supported by advanced non contact screening technology may be one way to go.
Intelligent computer technology that recognises suspicious behaviour in live internet-enabled CCTV feeds from public transport systems is already a reality, thanks to UK Home Office supported and ground breaking work carried out by the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) at Queens University in Belfast.
Meanwhile, experts at Loughborough University have developed an Explosive Residue Detection (ERD) system said to deliver an evolutionary step change in our ability to detect explosives on people and items of luggage. This laser based device operates remotely, can be installed in entry point locations at airports and can accurately identify the location of trace amounts of explosive on travellers or visitors passing through.
Harnessed appropriately, these two technology solutions could deliver an extended airport security perimeter and afford much better protection to all those who use our busiest transport hubs on a daily basis for drop off, pick up or other legitimate business. Such radical step changes rather obviously demand imagination on the part of those who plan and deploy appropriate security measures, the necessary wherewithal to fund them and the political will to enhance the security afforded to both the travelling and non travelling public.
Knowing the unknown
Much emphasis has been placed on intelligence gathering being the killer application in aviation security over recent years. Nowadays we hoover up vast amounts of information on those who travel by air, wash it through massive data collection centres, compare it against watch lists and hope this will aid us in stopping the next terrorist strike in its tracks. Such intelligence gathering serves a useful purpose when the information is analysed properly and disseminated in a timely enough fashion to be actioned upon.
Recent history has given us two prime examples as to why this intelligence gathering activity cannot yet be seen as the killer application in the aviation security toolbox though. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s almost successful bombing of a Northwest Airlines flight is one, whilst Faisal Shahzad’s near escape from justice following an attempt to set off a car bomb in the heart of New York is the other.
Intelligence services famously failed to connect the dots in the first instance and had neglected to ensure end users were real-time enabled in the second.
It’s also worth remembering that such intelligence gathering is only ever useful when something is already known about someone.
In respect to the Northwest Airlines incident a reasonable amount of information was known about Abdulmutallab but it wasn’t put together to build a picture of possible intent. What about the so-called clean skins out there, on whom there’s little or no intelligence in the databases at all though?
A truly clean skin will inevitably pass under the intelligence radar and could easily strike at the very heart of the aviation system.
The most appropriate response to the aviation security conundrum remains sensible technique supported by suitable technology.
Given that the range of threats facing the industry has expanded significantly in the past decade, many of us in the security sector have argued long and hard for a reassessment of how we go about such like as checkpoint screening as well as other security procedures. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) finally added its weight to this argument late last year.
Nevertheless, airports and airlines remain vehemently opposed to tinkering with what we already have, despite the fiscal imperative lessons learned in the past.
A case in point is the question of Liquid, Gel & Aerosol (LAG) screening. The European Union (EU) passed regulation 12 months ago, requiring airports across the region to have the capability to effectively screen such in transit items now and expand the capability to all checkpoints in two years’ time.
Through the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) devised Common Evaluation Process for Security Equipment (CEP) programme, multiple solutions have been tested, type rated and approved for deployment at airports.
The object of this activity is to lift the quantity restrictions travellers can carry in hand baggage within the passenger cabin. Airports haven’t been rushing to meet the EU regulation though, and whilst some are now compliant many are not.
Airports Council International (ACI) - Europe – the representative body for airports within the region – has been at loggerheads with both the EU and ECAC over this issue. Their beef is that the first three solution types so far approved under the CEP programme, require that potential threat items are screened either individually or collectively, but outside of the cabin baggage they may be being carried in. They want the holy grail solution of being able to screen everything without the need for passengers to separate out specific things which simply isn’t possible yet given the technological challenges that still need to be overcome.
This is an economic imperative for airports since such a capability would cut screening costs, speed the screening process and reduce screening times.
Importance of x-ray
The majority of the biggest airports have deployed high end dual view x-ray equipment in recent years, some of which have now been certified by ECAC as type C capable (Smiths 6040aTiX and Rapiscan 620DV units for example). Compliance with imminent EU regulation is therefore guaranteed.
Many airports, however, still deploy single view legacy x-ray and will be non complaint with the EU regulation. For these airports a cost effective upgrade path exists which, in many instances, can substantially extend the life of such legacy hardware or, alternately, enable compliance with regulation by other standalone means.
Canada’s Optosecurity Inc. is one such company to have won ECAC certification for deployment of its OptoScreener® product on a number of host single-view checkpoint X-ray screening platforms.
This Liquid Explosive Detection System (LEDS) has been EU Type C Certified on Smiths Detection HI-SCAN6040i and 6046si and other comparable manufacturer platforms. The company says that the OptoScreener® enables single view X-ray platforms to automatically detect multiple liquid threats in real time and allows airports equipped with such hardware to comply with EU regulation.
The product is reputed to have the lowest false alarm rates of any type in its class.
Meanwhile, the UK based Kromek Limited has been given a Type B classification for its Itemiser BLS-1004 product. This device offers smaller airports a compliant and standalone solution to screening potential threat items individually but in realtime.
The gradual relaxation of liquid restrictions surrounding passenger cabin baggage within the EU supposedly commences from end April 2011.
Only time will tell whether the airport sector will bend to the will of the regulatory body or otherwise.