Governments and industry must bang their heads together to avoid a repeat of the airport chaos caused by August’s UK terrorist alert

Now the dust has settled since the 10 August discovery of a terrorist plot allegedly to blow up airliners flying between the UK and the USA, the full extent of the chaos and inefficiency in Europe’s security system has become painfully clear. And if that is true of one of the parts of the world in which the security systems are relatively mature, what must most of the rest of the globe’s security systems be like?

This is not to say that security in Europe is ineffective in its main task of preventing illegal interference with flights. The successful intelligence gathering that led to the police pouncing on a large group of suspected terrorists – and the fast reaction to upgrade security measures – testifies to that, as does the fact that terrorists have not been successful against the air transport industry since 11 September 2001. But the unbelievable chaos caused by the “critical” level security measures – particularly at London’s airports, but across Europe and the Atlantic also – throws into sharp relief the lack of government preparation for such an event.

It is clear the UK government had recognised the need for a higher security level. It had even given that security category a name, but it had not thought through the consequences of applying it, nor prepared to apply it, nor communicated any idea of what such measures might require of the industry – especially the airports, but also the airlines. Hence the sheer degree of the ensuing chaos. Is this true of all governments across Europe? Probably. The world? Probably.

Frustration at this frightening level of government incompetence and lack of preparation boiled over last week among the delegates to the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) general assembly in Barcelona. ERA has been given a new mandate to harry governments via the European Commission and the European Civil Aviation Conference to get their joint acts together. Actually that is the problem. They do not act together, and even separately their plans have been demonstrably non-existent. All they have done is draw up requirements. They have not implemented them uniformly, made provision for their implementation, or carried out a study of the effects of the legislation.

Since 10 August two short-haul flights between the UK and Ireland that took action in response to a perceived terrorist threat – false alarms as it transpired – were treated by the national infrastructure and security systems in a way that defies ordinary logic or common sense, and betrayed the total lack of national or international preparation for implementing procedures in the event of simple security threats. In one case an aircraft, which might have had a bomb on board, was kept airborne for 45min longer than necessary and, upon landing at Prestwick airport, the passengers and crew were not allowed to disembark for more than an hour. Why? If airline passengers are to be sacrificed to some greater good or because of a higher risk to other parties, what is this greater good and what was the risk?

The required course of action is simple in principle, although it will be complex to put into practice – but it must be done.

The first principle is that governments and the industry across the world must learn all that they possibly can from what happened at UK airports on 10 August. It is not acceptable or necessary for those who would avoid being blamed for incompetence to hide behind the false screen of public interest in not divulging security information. No-one needs to know about the police operation or the intelligence gathering – just about why a supposedly prepared security system was not ready, and what needs to change to ensure it becomes prepared for another such event.

The critical component in this process must be close consultation between industry organisations and the governments and their institutions. Governments have the responsibility for ensuring security is provided; airports and airlines are not only those on which the task of carrying out the security measures devolves, but also – by virtue of that fact – they are the experts in how to make the system work. It is essential for a future system in which security is not only effective, but also efficient, that governments should listen to industry experts and then work with industry. Imposing a system does not work – especially when it has now become clear that large sections of a system that was believed to exist were figments of a government’s imagination.

Source: Flight International