The USA has met its security targets set after 11 September. But will it keep up its home vigilance and become a force for global standards?

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has just announced it has met a deadline no one believed it could meet - screening 100% of hold baggage at US airports. It has certainly put in place the means for carrying out hold baggage checks, whether by explosive detection screening (EDS) or by hand search, but only time will tell whether this is at the expense - as the Air Transport Association has remarked - of a tick-in-the-box approach to implementation.

But setting aside scepticism for a moment, the USA has, in little more than a year since the shock of 11 September 2001, changed the whole way it perceives security and has set up an infrastructure that may well succeed in its overall aim. The new agency that best illustrates this change in perception is the overarching Department of Homeland Security, intended to harness the capabilities of all the USA's defence, intelligence and law and order agencies for the protection of the nation and its citizens. It is immensely sad that the USA has had to do this at all because, uniquely among all major nations, it had previously been able to survive without it. That is a part of what made the USA what it was.

Looking for a silver lining in this dark cloud seems churlish, because it is impossible to see one for the USA itself. But the sad fact that the nation's homeland now faces the same problems that most other nations have lived with for a long time might mean that the USA's immense energy may be turned outward to accelerate the process of making aviation security a global system. And making the system global is the only way aviation security will become truly effective.

Since 11 September, the USA has not looked outside its boundaries for security best practices, but now it has met its political deadlines and Congress can say it has done its job, perhaps it will have the capacity to do so. Meanwhile, as an example of the USA's capacity to influence thinking and practice in the rest of the world, a new security measure quickly adopted by the USA in the past year has been universally accepted outside its shores, if not yet globally implemented. This is the strengthened cockpit door system that denies terrorists who get on board the opportunity to take charge of an aircraft and use it as a missile.

Until the 11 September reaction measures were developed, the most recent review of US security formed a part of the 1998 Gore report on aviation safety and security. That report did look outside the USA for security best practices, and one of the policies it recommended was bag matching (baggage reconciliation). Despite the fact that baggage reconciliation is one of the linchpin security standards recommended by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, it was rejected for domestic air travel. Since 11 September it has been adopted, but it looks as if the resolve to develop and keep it for travel within the USA might soon crumble.

It would help the USA, now it has its own security infrastructure in place, to learn from the security failures that Europe has seen. Lockerbie is the most dramatic example of what can happen if bag matching is not carried out. Even with current technology, there is no guarantee that the EDS being installed at airports all over the USA would definitely have picked up the existence of explosive in the bag that blew up the Pan American Boeing 747 - detection success rates with EDS are far from 100%. But the bag was not accompanied on the flight by those who arranged for it to be checked in, and that - until 11 September - was the usual scenario for aircraft saboteurs.

Al-Qaeda is not the only threat. Despite the recent spate of suicide attacks at embassies, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on 11 September itself, other kinds of saboteur or terrorist continue to exist. The missile fired at the Arkia Boeing 757 taking off from Mombasa in Kenya was carried out by people who intended to get away, and if passenger profiling would make a particular individual likely to be selected by security staff for careful searching, checking in a bag and walking away might be seen as having a higher chance of success, as well as allowing the perpetrator to live to do more damage.

The USA is committed to "a war against terrorism". That kind of war is a permanent commitment, and it is scarcely going to leave the US airline industry any less exposed to terrorist threats than it has been recently. So the most effective thing the USA can do is become a powerful engine for the worldwide spread of high, ICAO-based aviation security standards.

Source: Flight International