A standardised global security system is a long way from reality and may be unattainable

Commercial air transport security remains a fragmented system, with as many different standards of operation as there are countries. It may be that fall-out from the terrorist attacks on 11 September in New York and Washington DC will alter the situation - but it has not done so yet. The best that can be said is that most of the world has now acknowledged the need for a global system.

On 7 December, the International Civil Aviation Organisation published a full revision of its security standards and recommended practices (SARPS), listed in Annex 17 to the Convention on International Civil Aviation. It sets out the obligations of signatory states to "safeguard civil aviation against acts of unlawful interference" and lays down the agreed SARPs for achieving this goal. The latest revision of Annex 17 acknowledges that, on 11 September, the air transport industry was confronted with two threats for which it was completely unprepared. They came from a new breed of fundamentalist terrorists who are prepared to die carrying out their missions and are prepared to use civil aircraft as weapons of destruction.

However, despite the fact that ICAO's new security SARPS came into effect on 15 April, most of the world's airports and airlines, if they were subjected to a security audit, would still fail.

Nearly 40 states make up the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC). In the next month they expect to announce agreement on an Annex 17-based set of upgraded security measures for the region. This is likely to become influential as a standard for other countries that do not expect to deal with the same risk of terrorism that the USA faces, but who will be pressured by Europe to raise their standards if flights go there.

In June, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines signed an anti-terrorism accord, agreeing to share passenger lists and other intelligence. At a meeting of security-related ministries in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysian officials called for South-East Asian nations to harmonise domestic laws that impinge on terrorism and cross-border crime, and introduce new ones where necessary. ASEAN members include Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Who pays?

Airlines - and thus their passengers - have traditionally paid for all or most airport security. Since 11 September, the International Air Transport Association and the airlines' various regional trade associations have universally called for government provision of security, arguing that the new threats are political and not of the industry's making.

The USA has decided to federalise the provision of security at airports, under the auspices of the new Transportation Security Administration. The US Federal Aviation Administration has also given $100 million to US carriers to help them pay for cockpit security arrangements - basically strengthened cockpit doors. Video surveillance of the area outside the cockpit is not an FAA requirement, but airlines are snapping up the Airbus and Boeing cockpit security packages which include the feature.

These "subsidies" to US carriers have led the Association of European Airlines and the European Parliament to argue that national governments or the European Union should be the security provider - if only to ensure a level playing field in terms of industry costs. The European Council of Ministers has not yet ruled on this issue, but governments are known to be reluctant - some of them adamantly opposed - to paying for aviation security.

Annex 17 says any ICAO treaty-bound nation is obliged to have a "written national aviation security programme", including provision for checking and auditing its operation. The system includes components such as 100% passenger hand- and hold-baggage scanning and 100% hold-baggage reconciliation (bag-matching).

States are required to ensure airport security and operate systems for security clearance of airport employees and contractors allowed airside. This is a tall order and several recent apparently effortless criminal penetrations of London Heathrow's airside to steal valuable cargo testify to the fact that even airports with a reputation for good security have a long way to go to pass an ICAO Annex 17 audit.

Source: Flight International