Re-imagining Aviation Security: Waging War on Terror

Technology is only as effective as the people who operate it. Ultimately it is the people who make security systems work or fail. (Reuters)

What will be the fate of global terrorism, now that its ‘kingpin’ has been eliminated? It is unlikely to put a full-stop on terrorism. The question is not whether the terrorists will be back for more air crimes, but when, where and how – says Inderjit Singh, aviation analyst and former Airport Director and ex officio Chairman Airport Security Committee of a major International Airport.


Technology is only as effective as the people who operate it. Ultimately it is the people who make security systems work or fail. (Reuters)

A bomb slipping onboard an aircraft through airport security system is an airline passenger’s worst nightmare. Something in excess of 13.35 million people fly somewhere every day. At any given moment there are an estimated 19,600 commercial passenger aircraft in the air, flying between 1,650 airports in 179 countries around the world. This arithmetic adds up to an extreme state of stress and anxiety affecting all who use or work in aviation and also those who directly or indirectly are involved in the task of combating terrorism. An increasing use of sophisticated weapons, explosive devices and other equipment by terrorists, criminals and anti-social elements have thrown fresh challenges before airport and airline operators and law enforcing agencies – and underscores the need to understand terrorism from multiple angles in view of the strict security demands that today’s world places on aviation security. No country, even one with a relatively peaceful history, is exempt from terrorist attack.

Unlawful Interference against Civil Aviation:

Over the years, there have been a number of high-profile cases involving severe acts of terrorism, all presenting new challenges to the aviation security industry. The last decade has witnessed an unparalleled aviation security related phenomenon because of the September 11, 2001, attack on the United States. It was the first of its kind wherein civil aviation infrastructure, ie commercial passenger airliners loaded with jet fuel, was used as a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ to destroy the core financial, civilian and military establishments of a nation. Hitherto, airports and aircraft have been the target of criminal acts of unlawful interference. For example, when terrorists infiltrated Sri Lanka’s Bandaranaike International Airport via a storm water drain, they triggered explosions that developed into a chain reaction that destroyed several parked airliners and caused extensive damage to the passenger terminal building.
September 11 prompted global sweeping changes in aviation security perception, planning, policies and operational procedures. These covered all levels of airline and airport functions as the industry’s security system virtually underwent a paradigm shift. Richard Colvin Reid, a career criminal, commonly known as the shoe bomber, intended to destroy a commercial aircraft en route from Paris to Miami by detonating plastic explosives hidden in the hollowed-out bottoms of his modified shoes. It could have been a major disaster, but for the timely intervention of the passengers and the flight attendants onboard, combined with a chance technical glitch in the explosive apparatus; the fuse was too damp to be ignited.
His crime led to the new requirement by US airlines, and subsequently those of many other countries, to have passengers remove their shoes for inspection before boarding a flight or, in some cases, entering terminal buildings. The 9/11 devastation could have easily visited US-bound passengers yet again – ten Lockerbies in one day – had not British counter-terrorism sleuths cracked a plot by terrorists to carry aboard transatlantic flights bomb-making ingredients in the guise of beverages. This event in turn triggered, once again, an avalanche of unprecedented security measures worldwide, including ban on carrying all kinds of liquids and several other restrictions on carry-on items; leaving airline passengers bewildered and annoyed. As the list of banned items continues to evolve, many passengers remain unsure of what constitutes ‘contraband’ from one day to the next, or even one airport to another. Moscow’s busiest (Domodedovo) airport witnessed the deadliest suicide bomb attack on any international airport in recent times. How long and how often might this go on? The buck must stop somewhere!

Different Motivations, Different Solutions

To my mind, there is not one security system that cannot be penetrated. The only 100% guarantee to safety is not to fly. More often than not, in the aftermath of an incident, when reacting to the media glare and the pressure of a public outcry, concerned governments and their regulatory authorities have, much to the annoyance of the operational experts, resorted to knee-jerk reactions and ‘quick-fix’ solutions at exorbitant costs that cause great inconvenience to the users with no long-term advantages. Furthermore, the complications get compounded by promises to overhaul the existing security system, anticipating that this will deter anyone seeking to carry out similar attacks, and enable the authorities to deal with identical situations more effectively in future. I say this with certain authenticity as I have witnessed this – and more – as Airport Director and ex-officio Chairman of the Airport Security Committee (ASC) of a major International Airport, categorized as ‘Hypersensitive’ from the threat assessment point of view.
Historically, there are no two incidents that have been identical. The events of yesterday are neither a benchmark for today or indications of the events likely to unfold tomorrow. Though aviation security is an issue of global concern, there is not one standard solution applicable at all times, to all the airports and the airlines. A usual hypothesis among the aviation security planners in evolving solutions is that the airlines and airports share common goals and problems. Although the assumption at the face of it seems reasonable, there being a good deal of commonality between them; in reality there are forces – both internal and external – which set every facility at national, regional and global level apart, to be dealt within the context of historical values, environment and technological advancements and geopolitical considerations. The internationally accepted standards and recommended practices for a unified approach and control notwithstanding, local interventions are inevitable. The level of internal-external threat perceptions, the mix of international and domestic traffic, the proportion of high risk flights mean that there can be no common and permanent solutions. Aviation security planning is an ever-evolving dynamic process. The security wheel is never static, but moving; the Four Way Test is to be on guard all the time.
Traditional approaches to aviation security planning, and the traditional solutions, are no longer adequate. Problems vary and so should the solutions. In my opinion, there is no universal methodology for aviation security planning appropriate to all needs. Its existence is a myth we should exorcise.

Structuring Aviation Security Strategy

The passenger today expects security that is as unobtrusive as it is effective. Every airport, and the operating airlines there, has to jointly formulate a broad-based security strategy tailor-made to individual airport needs. This would mean security is not provided by one or two ad-hoc security considerations but by time-tested interactive measures and methodical procedures, which provide security in depth, and which pose considerable difficulty for the potential terrorist. Many disciplines are involved of course, including: access control, perimeter fencing, liquid explosive or biohazard detection, passenger, cargo and mail screening; guarding aircraft, people profiling and vetting, issuing ID cards and badges to employees, finding contraband, and supply and service screening. In structuring the security controls and the various screening devices, it is advocated that the measures be implemented so as to cause a minimum of interference with, or delay to, the passengers, crew, baggage, cargo and mail. These measures entail the training of personnel involved in the security task to national & international aviation laws providing an in-depth knowledge to analyse the suitability of the security controls, detection systems, etc, at every level; shall we say an all-encompassing multilayered ‘Onion Skin’ approach to security.
The terminal designs need to be more flexible. Should the security threat become greater in the future, the layout should be able to adapt to new requirements. Conversely, if the security environment and the threat assessment at any stage warrant the withdrawal of some security related checks, it should be done with the least, or no, inconvenience to the travelling public. Security-related aspects at an airport have to be dove-tailed into the very design of the airport infrastructure as a sub-system of the main layout, lest they become yet another obstacle in an already cluttered series of checks.

A Systems Approach to Aviation Security Management

The most vital component in the security system is the human factor. There is perhaps only one security system that terrorists can never guarantee to beat. Unlike the complexities of the screens and detectors familiar to every terrorist, it doesn’t use microchips, computers or X-rays. Instead, it relies on the world’s oldest security scanner, the watchful and trained human eye.
While state-of-the-art detection equipment and gadgets increase the ability to check hijacking attempts or defuse explosive devices, the role of the dedicated professionals is paramount. Regardless of hi-tech aids, the human element would always remain the key ingredient in the fight against aviation terrorism. Technology is only as effective as the people who operate it. Ultimately it is the people who make security systems work or fail. Terrorists’ ingenuity appears to be not only keeping pace with the emerging security apparatus, but perhaps pre-empting any such move by forward planning. Sky marshals, body scanners, x-ray machines, access control, biometric face-eyes-palm technology, sniffer dogs and employees trained in behaviour pattern recognition are all there to only second guess and interpret any potential breaches of security. Airports, airlines and the concerned government agencies must now work cooperatively to develop proactive strategies and implement security measures which anticipate as well as respond to a wide variety of potential threat situations.

The Best Defence is a Good Offence

Finally, my take on the matter: terrorists from time immemorial have had a fixation on targeting aviation. The political extremists, religious fundamentalists, and psychopaths – the 21st century criminals entered into the arena lately, fighting for their-so called just cause – are actually a misplaced and twisted cause, while seeing its global appeal, reach and the massive coverage given by the print and the electronic media.
We do not want the passenger to learn to constantly live with terror. Developing strengths means first discovering weaknesses, and remembering that when people’s lives are at stake, there is no such thing as a second chance. Aviation security today needs to be dovetailed into a larger hard-nosed counter-terrorism doctrine. We all in the aviation security businesses have to think the way a terrorist, hijacker or a smuggler thinks. This means penetrating inside the mind of the potential terrorist and remaining one step ahead to wage a war on terror.
In this ‘bad new world’ of cyberspace specialists, I foresee that the terrorists are likely to fork off into a high tech direction and the internet is going to be the new tool of choice. Terrorists with the support of the hackers will resort to more hidden agendas. Nations need to be more vigilant now and be prepared to combat their evil designs. Threat apparently looms over the vulnerable domain of air traffic control systems from those who may attempt targeting them due to the associated global ramifications; as they do with the power grids and financial institutions.
What would be the fate of global terrorism, now that its kingpin has been eliminated? It is unlikely to put a full-stop to terrorism. The question is not whether the terrorists will be back for more air crimes but when, where and how? As terror organisations continue to evolve and refine their strategies and tactics in response to the advanced technologies and measures from the aviation industry, the key to aviation security is being proactive and not reactive – engaging cooperation among all the stakeholders, the ability to anticipate threats, taking preventive or more rightly pre-emptive measures and a quick call on an effective, time-bound and result-specific investigation into incidents leading to a logical end. I may warn that failure of the aviation industry to timely anticipate the future changes in threat assessment would turn out to be a “failure of imagination”.

Inderjit Singh, Aviation Analyst and former Airport Director and ex officio Chairman Airport Security Committee of a Major International Airport

The author will be pleased to interact with readers via and/or debate on the issue in an aviation security forum.