Threat to sanity

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This story is sourced from Flight International
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Security priorities have not undergone a review since the knee-jerk policies that followed the 9/11 shock. They desperately need one

Airline passengers have been incredibly patient with air travel despite increased security measures, but unless the authorities' approach to security priorities changes, patience will run out. This will hurt the entire travel and tourism industry because discretionary air travel - both business and leisure - would then be affected.

This might cause a slowing of growth rather than a reduction in traffic, but there will be an effect unless the authorities get much smarter than they are today. Europe has its problems, but not quite to the same degree as the USA. There are good reasons why aviation cognoscenti in America call the TSA (Transportation Security Agency) the Transportation Suppression Agency.

Meanwhile the good news is that it would not be difficult for the authorities - including the TSA - to get smarter than they are today.

Since aviation security, like aviation safety, is ultimately a risk management rather than a risk elimination exercise, the security agencies would do well to take stock of their priorities in a way they have not done so far. It is true that threats and risks can change, and the security agencies and governments should be ready for this. But there has been no reassessment of what the true threats and true risks are since the inevitable knee-jerk reactions to the 9/11 disaster, despite the fact that a lot has been learned since then. We have had time to gauge what does not constitute a primary risk as well as tracking the changes in what does. As Ryanair chief Michael O'Leary said in a typically barnstorming press conference last week, "exploding lipsticks" cannot seriously be judged a primary risk.

The clear aim for governments and agencies should be to identify the most serious security risks that pose the greatest dangers to air travellers. If these serious dangers can be identified by the intelligence services - and the UK's recent experience indicates they can - most of the security system's resources should be directed at preventing those. There will always be some median-level risks about which tactical judgements on surveillance levels have to be made, but there must be a thorough review of what is no longer dangerous. At present, for ordinary front-line security scanner operators, there is so much froth in the objectives they are given that it obscures the real dangers. While they are still instructed to look for women's cosmetics, cuticle scissors and screwdrivers in hand luggage they will be diverted from the task of recognising detonators or their separated components - not an easy job.

In a modern airliner with a hardened cockpit door operated by disciplined flight and cabin crew, the primary threat - indeed the only remaining onboard threat that poses a catastrophic danger - is a bomb. Given the high level of security risk awareness of crews and passengers today, a man in possession of a screwdriver - or even a large knife - will pose a risk only to the one or two passengers who might be injured during the two seconds it will take for everyone in the cabin to mobilise against him. A gun might be a risk to more passengers, but even then the person carrying the gun would lose the battle with no political or ideological aims achieved.

There are other issues. Following a UK police decision to act on the intelligence about an imminent attack on US-bound flights, the UK home secretary John Reid raised the threat level to "critical", the highest state. That, plus additional hand baggage restrictions that are not an intrinsic part of the critical security state drill, created the travel chaos everyone has witnessed.

The howl of protest from the airlines since then has been that the intelligence agencies may have done a good job, but although the UK government controls security standards by law, it makes no financial provision for them, and certainly has no contingency plans for backing up airport security services when they are commanded to raise the surveillance levels because of a politically inspired terrorist plot.

The time has come for states across Europe to put their money where their mouths are. The European Commission and the European Parliament say governments should take financial responsibility for the security of their citizens when they fly just as they do when there is a threat against rail or buses. Until governments take responsibility for at least some of the costs of aviation security they will not feel compelled to do any joined-up thinking about it.