The TWA Flight 800 crash has caused the USA to look hard at its security measures. Some of the answers could lie in Europe.


THE 17 JULY TRANS World Airlines (TWA) Flight 800 crash has forced the USA to review the level of security afforded to passengers using its airports and is now having to come to terms with the fact that it is woefully inadequate.

Whether the crash was caused by a terrorist bomb or not, the shock felt at the loss of the airliner and its 230 passengers and crew has crystallised into demands for an overhaul of security measures and has led directly to establishment of the Gore Commission, which has been tasked to identify solutions to combat the threat posed by terrorism, be it home-grown or international.

As Europe has already discovered, however, those solutions will not come easily or cheaply. The European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) member states have, in recent years, been driving toward a goal of 100% checks of international baggage.

ECAC has been careful not to specify timeframe, method or enforcement policy, leaving such issues to member states. The UK, which elected to legislate, is closest to achieving that goal, with Belgium close behind.

The cost has been immense. For example, UK airports operator BAA says that it has invested £170 million ($265 million) in the integration of a combination of smart X-ray technology and latest-generation scanning equipment in the baggage-sorting systems at all seven of its airports, including London Heathrow, the world's busiest international airport.

BAA comments: "The objective has been to obtain technology that can cope with small and large loads. That has been met and the programme of installation is now well advanced." Integration is the key word. BAA says that it found early on that "front-of-house" screening would simply create too many bottlenecks, and instead developed an automated in-line system which feeds checked baggage through multiple levels of screening at high speed and with great accuracy.

Other operators have also concluded that in-line screening is the way to go, but have elected to choose off-the-shelf equipment which could be slotted into existing baggage lines. InVision Technologies' CTX 5000, the only explosive-detection system (EDS) of its type capable of spotting minute amounts of plastic explosive and having US Federal Aviation Administration certification for airport use, has been the main choice. Ironically, the US system is still only under trial in the USA. Despite its almost fabled capability, the primary drawback of CTX 5000 is cost. Nevertheless, the UK's Manchester Airport has installed ten units. With a price tag of around £800,000 a unit, the airport is thought to have invested about £8 million. Manchester argues, however, that the cost is minimal - only about 40p (63¢) per bag screened.

ECAC estimates that, if similar EDS systems were to be used throughout Europe, the total cost would be around £3.2 billion. While that may seem an excessive amount for industry or government to have to pay, it seems reasonable to assume that other countries will follow the UK's example of raising landing fees to recover a percentage of the investment.

The impact of EDS systems, particularly at busy international airports, has also been targeted in the debate generated by the announcement of the Gore Commission. InVision Technologies admits that such devices cannot achieve throughput rates of 1,200 bags an hour with smart X-ray equipment.

It is easy to forget, however, that the basic baggage-security requirement as defined by the International Civil Aviation Organisation is a procedure which does not require equipment at all: it is 100% baggage reconciliation (all passengers who check in baggage have to be physically confirmed as having boarded themselves, otherwise their bags have to be offloaded). Baggage reconciliation is practised in Europe, but, despite a recommendation in the now-forgotten post-Lockerbie report commissioned by President Bush, is not a US internal requirement.

InVision argues that its system does not need a high processing rate because it is a downline machine where only suspect items are processed more thoroughly.

Nevertheless, the company is working with the FAA, airlines and airport authorities to enhance speed. In FAA-sponsored trials with United Airlines at San Francisco, operational performance averages only 100 bags an hour, but the system has achieved 300 bags an hour at Brussels National, and InVision hopes to push that figure through 400 items before the end of the year.

Europe has become a testing ground for high-tech security systems. The latest EDS to undergo trials has been the Quantum Magnetics QSCAN 1000, a technology developed for detecting plastic mines in Vietnam.

It is effective and capable of dealing with 600 bags an hour, but is seen as a downline second- or third-level machine.

Neither is it a stand-alone solution, because it requires smart X-ray support for imaging. Nevertheless, the system has received favourable revues from Manchester and the BAA is also thought to hold the system in high regard.

Source: Flight International