Plans for sky marshals and armoured cockpit doors on airliners miss the point - terrorists must be prevented from getting on board

Last week saw a raft of proposals to counter hijackers in flight: armed sky marshals, armoured cockpit doors, giving guns to pilots and even controlling aircraft - like unmanned air vehicles - from the ground. However, there was scant mention of improved security at airports, and surely it is better to remove the opportunity for a hijacking than trying to do something about it once it has begun.

A concentration on dealing with in-flight incidents rather than trying to eliminate the problem seems to be putting the cart before the horse. There is also a risk that the world is so busy planning to counter the last terrorist outrage (like the military always seems to plan to fight the last war) that the preparations for the next terror attack will be missed or an effective counter not be possible. These quick-fire decisions on a way forward perhaps have more to do with reassuring the public, but such an approach runs the risk that changes that could make a real difference with no increased threat to the passenger will be overlooked. New security measures should surely be considered in the same way as improved safety procedures - are the changes a knee-jerk reaction to a one-off event that could, in some respects, set safety back, or will there be a genuine improvement in security for all time?

Although all the suggested security measures have obvious potential for deterring or defeating hijackers, they also have the potential to do more harm than good. The widespread introduction of armed sky marshals has received the greatest publicity. President George Bush has pledged to increase their numbers significantly and the US Federal Aviation Administration has started recruiting. But are sky marshals really the panacea that some would have us believe? They are already carried on some flights, for instance those carrying gold bullion, and on every Israeli airline service.

But there is a risk in having armed guards on board an aircraft. Talk has been of frangible bullets - which on the whole have been designed for safety on the firing-range during training and not for use in aircraft - and other methods less dramatic than a 0.45in round. Concerns about bullets puncturing the airframe or damaging systems are valid, but it should be remembered that pilots are trained to deal with sudden decompression. However, dealing with one emergency by creating another one is at best a dubious practice. But firing a gun, with or without low-velocity, frangible bullets, in an enclosed space is never a good idea, and the sky marshals must receive continual range training to ensure that the target is incapacitated with the fewest number of rounds. The first time an innocent passenger - even an unruly one - is seriously injured or killed by a sky marshal, the clamour to remove them from flights will be as loud as it is now to introduce such measures.

Cockpit doors are another area receiving much attention. Armoured doors are as much about stopping stray bullets from a sky marshal's gun as dealing directly with a potential hijacking. The debate whether to lock the cockpit door or not is an old one and for every person that says it prevents unauthorised access to the flight deck another points to the times when access has saved the day.

Surely improved airport security must be the way ahead. And not just checks on passengers, but everybody that has access to the airside, including crew, maintenance personnel, catering suppliers, airport staff and cargo handlers. Passengers will be concerned that check-in will take longer, companies will worry that operations will take longer, and everyone will be troubled by the cost, privacy and human rights issues. But cost and inconvenience are not good reasons for maintaining the status quo, particularly as both will be reduced as new technology comes online. Israel maintains a 2h check-in policy, which is the same as for long-haul flights from most European airports, so it must be possible to improve security without increasing waiting-times. If governments have to fund the extra cost then so be it. The taxpayer can surely pay a little extra for the additional safety. Such improvements will not only include technology, but also databases and improved intelligence gathering and dissemination.

As a "belt and braces" approach to preventing a terrorist outrage, some of these onboard proposals have validity. As the sole means of dealing with a potential hijacking, they leave a lot to be desired. What is more important is to stop the terrorist believing aviation is a target rather than worrying about how to counter the problem once it has developed.

Source: Flight International