As we approach the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States and recall how they changed airport security forever, Tom Allett and Caroline Cook look towards IATA’s checkpoints of the future.
Who can forget that tragic day of a decade ago? The shock of witnessing those almost unimaginable events will stay with millions of people for the rest of their lives. The Airports International editorial team was attending the ACI North America conference in Montreal that fateful Tuesday morning and, along with many hundreds of delegates, stood in disbelief when watching the live television footage being broadcast on the two big screens in the conference hall. Because Montreal is in the same time zone as New York and Washington DC, we saw the events unfold at the start of the working day. Representatives from the majority of North American airports were in the main hall when the news flashed up on the screens. When it was announced that all commercial aircraft were being ordered to land – immediately – at the nearest available airport, not surprisingly, virtually everyone in the hall wanted to get in touch with their own respective airports. What was planned to be a four-day conference was effectively over in less than an hour. We didn’t realise it right away – it was impossible to think about anything else but the horror we had just witnessed on TV – but our industry was entering a new era.
Responding to the attacks on its sovereign territory, the United States government established its Transport Security Agency (TSA) in November 2001. The TSA took the responsibility for passenger screening out of the hands of private security companies and placed it on a national level. Prior to 9/11 it was legal to take knives with a blade of up to 4 inches (10cm) onboard an airliner. This enabled the 9/11 terrorists to take ‘box cutters’ – small knives, perhaps better known as Stanley knives in Europe – with blades of about 1.5 inches (4cm) through airport security in their cabin baggage without raising any suspicions. They used these to attack the crews of the aircraft they were hijacking, and as a consequence, a ban on all ‘sharps’ – including the metal cutlery used by airlines’ onboard catering – was introduced on September 13, 2001. As all regular air travellers will know, it remains in force to this day and anything deemed to be sharp must be removed from cabin luggage.
america’s official report into the 9/11 attacks noted that although some of the hijackers had triggered the airport metal detectors and had subsequently been subjected to a further hand wand inspection, the security staff failed to find the hidden weapons. As a result of this, passengers triggering the metal detection arch have been required to undergo ‘pat down’ searches.
Armoured flight deck doors were also introduced and passengers were banned from being able to visit the flight deck under any circumstances. As a further deterrent against future terrorist groups trying to take over an airliner’s cabin, the number of air marshalls carried onboard flights was significantly increased.
In December 2001, British-born al-Qaeda member Richard Reid tried to use an improvised explosive device hidden in his shoe to destroy an airliner en route from Europe to the US. Thankfully, after boarding a flight from Paris to Miami, he failed to detonate the bomb. As a consequence of Reid’s actions, many countries have required passengers to remove their shoes before passing through airport security in an attempt to identify hidden explosives. Another security issue that came to light was that some of the 9/11 terrorists boarded their flights despite having no proper ID. Today, passengers are unable to travel on even domestic services without bona-fide photo or biometric ID.
Meeters and greeters have also been affected by post 9/11 restrictions – in the US, prior to the terrorist attacks, anyone could walk down to an aircraft’s departure gate regardless of whether they were travelling or not. Post 9/11 only those with a boarding pass can go beyond security.
A new regulation that has particularly impacted passengers was the ban on liquids and gels that came into force overnight in August 2006. British police discovered a terrorist plot to blow up several transatlantic airliners in midair using explosives created from a combination of liquids that were to be carried in hand luggage.
After an extensive police surveillance operation a number of arrests were made in the UK on August 10, 2006. Hundreds of flights were cancelled in the immediate aftermath of this and a temporary ban on all hand luggage was introduced. In a matter of days this restriction was relaxed and passengers were allowed to carry a single item of cabin baggage, but the ban on liquids and gels remained in force. Subsequently, a further easing of the rules allowed up to 100ml of liquids or up to three ounces of gels to be carried in containers placed inside clear plastic bags. More recently, following the introduction of liquid explosive detection machines, the EU has ended its ban on liquids inside cabin baggage, though, at the time of writing, the 100ml limit is still in place at UK airports.
The next serious event to have a major effect on airport security processes occurred on Christmas Day, 2009. After flying from Lagos to Amsterdam, Nigerian-born Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab transferred to a Detroit service. As the flight neared its destination he unsuccessfully tried to detonate a makeshift bomb that he had hidden in his underwear. The fact that he had been able to smuggle the device while transiting through one of the most modern airports in the world came as a shock to the industry, and as a direct result there was a rush to introduce millimetre-wave screening machines, that are able to detect the presence of many types of potential threat hidden under clothing. The machines which could ‘see’ through passengers’ clothing quickly became known as body scanners. A long-standing debate raged in the media about just how revealing and, therefore, unacceptable, this new technology was to the travelling public – it has undoubtedly been the most controversial aspect of passenger screening yet introduced.
So, having dealt briefly with the background to post 9/11 screening, what of the future?
For many years there has been a growing lobby of voices from the industry that stresses the need to recognise the fact that most passengers are not a threat and so security efforts should primarily be concentrated on identifying the tiny minority who are. We have seen the emergence of ‘known traveller’ programmes, whereby passengers register their identity details with a private company that is authorised to carry out the check-in and ID checks – but not the screening process itself. However, these have met with varying levels of success but, to date, none has been able to achieve truly widespread recognition and use. Nevertheless, efforts are still be made to reduce security queues by streaming passengers according to their perceived threat levels but now the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is the driving force.
On June 7, 2011, at its 67th AGM held in Singapore, IATA revealed its vision of what the Checkpoint of the Future (CotF) should look like. Based upon what it describes as intelligence-driven risk-based measures, IATA’s mock-up shows a three-lane security channel designed to reduce queues and “intrusive searches at airports”.
Setting the scene for the introduction of IATA’s new concept, its departing Director General and CEO, Giovanni Bisignani, said: “We spend US$7.4 billion a year to keep aviation secure. But our passengers only see hassle. Passengers should be able to get from curb to boarding gate with dignity. That means without stopping, stripping or unpacking, and certainly not groping. That is the mission for the Checkpoint of the Future. We must make co-ordinated investments for civilised flying.”
There are three main concepts behind IATA’s CotF. The first is that security is strengthened by focusing resources where risk is deemed to be the greatest. Secondly, the industry and governments need to support this risk-based approach by integrating passenger information into the checkpoint process. And thirdly, at the same time, it is important to maximise the throughput of the vast majority of travellers who are deemed to be low risk without compromising security levels.
Mr Bisignani continued: “Today’s checkpoint was designed four decades ago to stop hijackers carrying metal weapons. Since then, we have grafted on more complex procedures to meet emerging threats. We are more secure, but it is time to rethink everything. We need a process that responds to today’s threat. It must amalgamate intelligence based on passenger information and new technology. That means moving from a system that looks for bad objects, to one that can find bad people.”
Effectively the IATA CotF concept would end the current ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to security by directing queuing passengers into one of three lanes: ‘Known Traveller’, ‘Normal’, and ‘Enhanced Security’. Which lane the passenger takes will be determined by a biometric identifier in the passport or other travel document – this will have been created by a risk assessment conducted by the government in question before the passenger arrives at the airport.
IATA envisages that the three security lanes will be equipped with the technology required to check passengers according to risk. The so-called known travellers, who have registered and completed background checks with government authorities, will have expedited access.
Normal screening, for those who are not registered on the government-approved traveller database would handle the majority of passengers. The third category will involve an additional level of screening. This will be applied to those for whom there is “less information available” (though what this phrase actually means has not yet been explained), as well as people who are randomly selected by security staff, and those deemed to represent an elevated risk.
But how is this any different from previous attempts to expedite the security process which allowed ‘known travellers’ to join the queue at the front of the security screening line, rather than bypass any checks? IATA says that the screening process will be easier because technology is being developed that will allow passengers to walk through the checkpoint without having to remove clothes or unpack their belongings. In addition, IATA foresees that the efficiency of the security process could be further enhanced by combining it with outbound customs and immigration procedures.
Of course when the various state and international authorities have agreed on a definitive vision of the CotF, it will fall to the technology manufacturers to deliver the goods that really make the system work.
Andrew Goldsmith from the security systems manufacturer Rapiscan told Airports International that he “completely agreed” with IATA’s “big picture” vision of the CotF and the “common sense prioritisation of passengers”. Mr Goldsmith also commented on the need for “some predictability” regarding the types of technology that airports are going to adopt. Due to the huge amount of money that manufacturers need to invest in developing the chosen screening technologies, he noted that the decision makers need to stick with developing the methods they have selected, rather than change direction a few years down the line.
IATA explained that through the ICAO, 19 governments, including the United States: “are working to define standards for a Checkpoint of the Future.” It added that it is also liaising closely with the US Department of Homeland Security’s ‘Checkpoint of Tomorrow’ programme which has similar goals.
“We have the ability to move to the biometric scanning and three-lane concept right now. And while some of the technology still needs to be developed, even by just re-purposing what we have today, we could see major changes in two or three years’ time,” said Bisignani.