The International Air Transport Association (IATA) is calling on the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to partner with the airline industry to identify effective and efficient ways to address evolving security challenges in light of the foiled Christmas terrorist plot to down a Detroit-bound aircraft.
In a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Napolitano, IATA’s Director General and CEO Giovanni Bisignani appreciated the swift reaction of DHS to maintain the confidence of the flying public and airline employees.
Bisignani noted the need for short-term temporary and extra-ordinary security measures until the immediate threat has abated. But he cautioned Napolitano that long-term solutions must include improved technology and effective risk assessment techniques.
“The air transport system cannot support 100% pat-down searches over the long term.” IATA is recommending a smaller percentage of intensive pat downs accompanied by technologies or proportionate screening procedures as a means to achieve near-term security requirements with reduced delays.
While security is a government responsibility, it is a shared priority with industry, he added. Bisignani urged DHS to allow the current short-term measures to be urgently followed-up by a comprehensive DHS/industry review of security systems to address existing and evolving security threats.
The failed Detroit terror plot emphasised two key realities, he added: the global nature of the threat and the need for effective cooperation and information sharing among and within intelligence organisations. “Effective security needs a system that is built on global harmonisation, effective information exchange, industry/government cooperation, risk assessment and efficient technology. This is how we made flying the safest way to travel. We must take the same approach with security,” said Bisignani.
Numbers illustrate the scale of the challenge. In the 12 months to September 2009, air transport connected 2.2 billion passengers safely and securely. This includes 820 million international travellers of which 140 million were international travellers on US routes. Another component is the US domestic market which accounts for 620 million travellers. “We live on an interconnected planet. Effective security cannot be achieved with a silo-approach,” said Bisignani.
As governments, with industry, review security in the days and weeks ahead, Bisignani urged a long-term re-think of the security model.
“Instead of looking for bad things—nail clippers and rogue bottles of shampoo—security systems need to focus on finding bad people. Adding new hardware to an old system will not deliver the results we need. It is time for governments to invest in a process built around a check point of the future that combines the best of screening technology with the best of intelligence gathering. Such a system would give screeners access to important passenger data to make effective risk assessments. The data is being collected. The technology exists. Industry is supportive. Now ICAO and governments must work together to make such a process a reality with global harmonisation and data-sharing,” said Bisignani.
Each year airlines and their passengers invest US$5.9 billion in security measures. Last year the global airline industry posted losses of $11 billion. Bisignani expects further losses of $5.6 billion this year. He has previously complained of the propensity of air safety authorities such as the TSA to mandate new security measures and passing the bill to the industry, a practice he has said must be stopped.
Fear, not data, driving agenda
In October IATA Senior Vice President Safety Operations & Infrastructure Günther Matschnigg told a global aviation security conference in Cape Town that fear, not data, was driving decision making in airline and airport security.
“Competent regulators are redoing the security screening performed by other competent regulators,” he said of what he described as needless duplication and waste.
“We are spending billions of dollars to protect ourselves from improbable threats,” Matschnigg added at the IATA-organised event. “Complex and duplicative regulations provide only the illusion of security.”
He told an audience of government regulators and airline officials that all security processes, “both existing and planned, need to be judged in terms of their added value, proportionality, common sense, and cost-effectiveness.
“Even small changes and differences to regulation can cause great costs for industry. For example, adding just one additional item to a passenger data message can cost an airline $50 thousand in development, testing, and programming – and that does not include data transmission.”
Kurt Larsen, the director general of civil aviation in Denmark added that last year already 35% of airline operational costs were security related. He said that before adding further layers of security “we should ask if it is really necessary.” Larsen, also speaking at the IATA aviation security conference in October, further urged a review of existing procedures, saying many were no longer useful and many requirements were no longer valid.
He said many of the post September 11, 2001 measures mandated by the US were “driven by political imperatives to convince a frightened populace air travel was still safe. There was no wider threat assessment.” He noted with some mirth that tennis racquets have now been removed from the list of prohibited carry-on articles board aircraft.
Treating everyone as terrorist diluting security
“Current aviation security policies are based on the idea that all people must be treated equally; that means treating every passenger and every bag alike; the same amount of airport security resources must be invested in each passenger. Everyone must remove their laptops from their briefcases. Everyone of us must be subject to random searches. The assumption is every passenger is equally likely to be a terrorist and every bag is equally likely to contain explosives or harmful materials. Every nail scissors must be removed, no matter how much we may know about its owner.
“Such measures may make airports less secure than they might as attention is diluted when the same attention must be given to all passengers. Limited security resources are spent on low risk passengers and bags that should be spent on high risk passengers and bags,” Larsen said.
“In normal life people accept risk… we still use our cars with the knowledge that thousands of people die every year in car accidents. By contrast, the events of ‘9-11’ threw our sense of safety and security upside down. As a result of this fear we enacted a series of hasty restrictions to improve the security of air travel despite evidence that these reforms would not have prevented the tragedy.
“Obviously thousands of bottles of liquor have been confiscated along with nail scissors and small pocket knives. But has this prevented terrorist attack? Actually we don’t know. But we know that intelligence work has improved and has prevented several attacks.
“Air transport is still a top priority for terrorists but we have hardened the target. One aspect of the discussion on hardened targets has not been [stressed] is the behaviour of the normal citizen. They surely constitute the best security element on airlines. After ‘9-11’ many passengers are willing to act decisively if someone tries to gain authorised access to the cockpit,” he continued.
In the Christmas incident, passengers overwhelmed a Nigerian man who attempted to set off explosives concealed in his underwear. The attempt failed although the al Qaeda operative did manage to cause a fire and inflicted burns on his groin area.
Larsen adds that it is a “political objective that citizens can travel freely, comfortably and securely. Therefore all stakeholders have a common interest in creating effective measures to create appropriate levels of security combined with the most effective processes and measures to do this. Facilitation has been significantly affected by a slew of regulations imposed in recent years. Facilitation seems like the forgotten partner in the relationship between facilitation and security.
“This is imbalance must be addressed. Not all existing security measures can be regarded as equally effective. [Current] regulation is focussed on process and oversight on compliance not outcome , which can admittedly be very different.
“It is also important to pop the illusion that 100% [security] exists or can be achieved short of stopping flight. Resources should b directed where most needed. It shall not be denied that measures can fall short in specific situations and therefore [the industry] cannot eliminate the risk totally.”
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Pic: A security checkpoint at Munchen airport, Germany.