There has been plenty of time - in the five years since terrorists first used commercial airliners as missiles - to test the effectiveness of the measures designed to prevent a similar attack. Yet criticism of ineffective security measures instituted since 11 September 2001 is still more frequent than praise for effective ones.
This comment on the US demand for a plethora of personal detail about each America-bound passenger before the flight departs, is typical: "Since 9/11 there has been no justification and no evaluation of the transfer of passenger details. We don't even know if it works and after five years you get the impression that we are less protected as citizens, not more so." That statement was made in a European Parliament committee on 13 July by a Dutch Liberal Member of the European Parliament (MEP), Sophie in't Veld. She continued: "We simply are not allowed to ask questions. Citizens are more and more subjected to ridiculous security measures, some of which are very useful, but many of which are absolutely useless."
|During the UK's recent terror alert passengers were allowed no cabin baggage except documents|
In the latter respect Veld has an ally in a distinctly right-wing US body, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which slams the lack of a system for differentiating security screening procedures for identified airline pilots or cabin crew on duty and the procedure for passengers. The International Federation of Airline Pilots' Associations (IFALPA) agrees. They would both like to see, universally applied, a scheme they are trying to persuade the US Transportation Security Agency (TSA) to implement - the transport worker identification credential (TWIC). This is an identity card with biometric details held on an embedded chip, and all employees authorised to go airside - including pilots - should be required to have them, ALPA says. Anybody with one will have been background-checked so, although the pilot associations are not arguing for zero screening for TWIC-holders, they should not have to undergo high-level security checks every time they report for work.
The association also bemoans the security services' obsession with screening for multiple types of banned, but relatively harmless, objects, saying this distracts screeners from identifying genuinely dangerous equipment or materials (see ALPA: the USA's pilots speak, P30). IFALPA president Capt Dennis Dolan says he would like to see the principle of selective screening used more widely, so that the limited resources available to security services are concentrated where they are needed most, and not squandered on repeatedly screening securely identified, background-checked, trusted people. That could include trusted passenger schemes, but whatever the system, the common factors would be background checking and a biometric identification system like the TWIC.
Meanwhile, ALPA applauds the US scheme for training armed federal air marshals and federal flightdeck officers (airline pilots with guns), which is not much admired outside the USA.
Airlines are individually reluctant to speak about security in general and 9/11 in particular. Nevertheless, they make their collective views known through the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Communications director Anthony Concil echoes Veld's and ALPA's views on superfluous and ineffective security, particularly the security services' rules about "harmless implements" carried by passengers. This concern, says Concil, is no longer relevant, and he urges governments: "Don't fight yesterday's battles be ready for tomorrow." He says IATA's policy on armed personnel on board is that there should be no guns in the cockpit, and if there are to be state-trained security personnel on board they should be paid for by the state.
ALPA says it wants "individual risk assessment", and alongside this calls for risk profiling in all areas, explaining: "Critical decisions regarding the allocation of funds and use of assets dedicated to the security of the aviation sector must be based on a threat-driven, risk-managed perspective. Existing programmes and new initiatives must be evaluated from this perspective. Since the events of 9/11 this guiding principle has been obscured at times, with the advent of programmes that seem to add nothing of value to security efforts while having a negative impact on the functioning of the aviation industry." ALPA says it wants to see the adoption of the risk management analysis process (RMAP) that is being developed by the Aviation Security Impact Assessment working group.
In Europe, the possible need to place armed marshals on flights deemed at risk was tacitly acknowledged by the European Commission in 2005 with a draft regulation aimed at harmonising civil aviation security rules. The European Parliament in June supported the EC proposal to strengthen in-flight security, although it would only accept gun-toting sky marshals under strict conditions: these would include authorisation by the state granting the airline's operating certificate, and by the states of departure and arrival.
States overflown en route or in which stops are made would also have to approve. The additional costs would be shared by airline users and member states, says the Parliament. Meanwhile, MEPs have requested the EC develop a uniform financing system to avoid market distortions. The proposal is to be examined by the Council of Transport Ministers on 12 October.
IFALPA's Dolan praises only one post-9/11 measure unreservedly - the installation of hardened cockpit doors and the newly introduced crew in-flight drills that go with them to ensure terrorists can never again take active control of an aircraft. Like ALPA, his organisation wants to see these measures reinforced by secondary barriers - perhaps a quickly deployable mesh net across the aisle a few metres from the cockpit doors - to protect against any attempt by a would-be hijacker to take advantage of the need to open the door briefly a few times on a long-haul flight. In the longer term he wants new-build long-haul aircraft to provide crews with their own toilet within the secure area. The European Cockpit Association says secure cockpit doors are only truly effective if they are combined with a surveillance camera that enables the pilots - without leaving their seats - to see on a display ahead of the crew who is asking for access, and whether that crew member is being threatened.
Behind closed door
Dolan is unwilling to discuss in detail the drills associated with the hardened cockpit doors, but he confirms that the basic principle is - whatever threats might be made to people in the cabin by a terrorist with any kind of weapon, including firearms - that the pilots will not open the cockpit door, but will concentrate on landing the aircraft as soon as possible at the nearest airfield that would have the capabilities to deal with the situation on board.
But Dolan would like to see insistence on hardened cockpit doors for pure freight aircraft, because they often carry a few non-crew people in the freight bay, whether they are passengers, freight handlers, or aid distribution staff if the cargo is for famine relief. "These people could be a threat. Cargo and passenger aircraft are all the same if you are looking for a weapon of mass destruction." Some cargo aircraft do not even have cockpit doors, says Dolan, let alone hardened doors and the training in how to operate them. Like ALPA, Dolan would also like to see freight profiling to determine which cargo needs particularly careful screening.
Above all, he says: "Security is a layer of defences there is not only one thing you can do - there is no silver bullet or whatever you want to call it - but what we have to bear in mind is we want to stop these people on the ground, prevent them getting on to the aircraft in the first place."
Dolan also concedes that explosive screening devices "are a definite improvement over where we were five years ago". Meanwhile, he says, the crew drills for dealing with hijacks are totally different. "Security is everybody's business - meaning passengers, crew, bystanders, security screeners, ticket agents - everybody has a responsibility in the security chain. There is a greater awareness of that responsibility since 9/11. More people are looking, more people are watching for erratic or strange behaviour by others."
Dolan describes the on-board hijack scenario today: "There is a complete change in philosophy today regarding hijacking. The old school drill was to co-operate [with the hijacker], get the aircraft on the ground and try to negotiate with them. Not now. These guys don't want to get on the ground." And both the flightcrew and cabin crew know they can call upon the passengers now to overcome a common on-board enemy.
Dolan backs ALPA in accusing the authorities of being dangerously obsessed with screening for so many ordinary objects, overloading the staff and distracting them from the task of distinguishing genuinely dangerous items and noticing behavioural cues. "If a steel knife is what you have chosen to use as a terrorist you have made a poor choice," says Dolan.
All the security machinery put in place since 9/11 was tested to its limits by the intelligence-led decision by the UK government - announced in the early hours of 10 August - to upgrade to security category to "Critical" - the highest level. Not only that, but because the intelligence revealed the nature of the threat - chemicals to be taken on board in liquid form and combined to create an explosive substance - hand-baggage restrictions that were not inherent in the top security category were imposed on top of the 100% screening requirement.
All cabin baggage and personal equipment like mobile telephones had to be checked in as hold luggage, and passengers were only allowed to carry with them travel documents. Plans for specific attacks against flights bound from UK to the USA had allegedly been uncovered by the police and intelligence agencies.
The result was passenger chaos, delay and mass flight cancellations at all the major UK airports - but particularly London Heathrow and London Gatwick, which proved to be unprepared for measures on this scale. The UK Home Office and Department for Transport also admitted to having no contingency plans to cope with the effects of implementing security level Critical.
A week before the UK announced the special measures, the EC had confirmed a second time that governments in Europe should take responsibility for the costs of providing security against terrorism for citizens travelling by air. At present they do not.
The industry reaction to the UK situation has been to praise the intelligence services for their detailed identification of a serious threat, but airline industry recriminations about overreaction in security measures and the lack of airport and national preparedness began emerging within two days of the security state being raised.
The Association of European Airlines (AEA) has not only criticised the airports and government, but also the US government for imposing even more additional measures on the top of those adopted in response to the identified threat. On 17 August AEA secretary general Ulrich Schulte-Strathaus said: "All operators, including airports, should be able to adapt their measures without causing extreme disruption to passengers," adding: "The US government has increased airport screening staff by 50% since 10 August. Being able to call on extra staff to assist passengers should be a part of any airport contingency plan." IATA chief executive Giovanni Bisignani expressed the same sentiments, but suggested that the UK airports were not alone in being unprepared: "This is another wake-up call for airports," he said.
After 9/11 the International Civil Aviation Organisation completely reviewed its Annex 17, the document detailing security standards and recommended practices. Since November 2002 when ICAO carried out its first national security audit under its Universal Security Audit Programme (USOAP), it has checked more than 100 states and submitted to them the results. The problem is that USOAP results are not externally transparent, although there is pressure to make them so.
Since 9/11, however, the only successful sabotage attack by terrorists occurred in Russia, when two aircraft in flight were blown up simultaneously by suicide bombers, although a passenger who committed suicide for personal reasons in a Chinese airliner destroyed the aircraft and all on board (see Acts of Unlawful Interference since 9/11, P33).
But no hijack attempt since September 2001 has been successful, with the exception of an event in Colombia where lawless elements dominate some parts of the country. But even then the aircraft and its passengers survived.