Aviation Still Vulnerable One Year After 9/11

July 7, 2008 - 8:20 PM

London (CNSNews.com) - The level of aviation security in the United States and worldwide hasn't been adequately improved since the Sept. 11 attacks, according to a leading aviation expert.

Chris Yates, editor of the London-based Jane's Civil Aviation Security, said one year after the assault the public is still at danger from terrorists targeting air travel.
Yates said security efforts have concentrated on preventing another round of suicide hijackings, to the neglect of other, potentially more likely, terror scenarios.

"There are two key issues that need to be addressed: passenger screening and hold baggage screening," Yates said. "There are major problems in both areas."

Screening hold baggage, Yates explained, provides an important defense against a terrorist bomb destroying an aircraft. Despite U.S. and European pledges to screen all hold baggage by the end of this year, Yates predicted the goals won't be met and that screening will only become universal at the end of 2003.

"By failing to meet the deadline, you're creating a window of opportunity for a terrorist organization to get a bomb on a plane and explode it over an ocean or the continental United States," Yates said.

"The odds against such an attack are substantial, but the potential is there and you need to protect against that potential."

Yates puts some of the blame on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), a new agency created by President Bush in the wake of the attacks.

"They've put some complex tasks in the hands of an new agency. That was guaranteed to cause problems," he said. "TSA officials may have law enforcement experience but they have little concept of the aviation industry and this has led to a lot of bad decisions."

For example, Yates believes the TSA choose poorly when deciding on explosive screening devices to be installed in all major U.S. airports. The Explosive Detection System chosen by the agency has a failure rate of up to 30 percent, Yates said.

"I think we should be looking at alternatives," he said.

Technology problem

The current state of technology in the aviation industry was also cited as a problem by Phillip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International magazine.

Although Baum said that since Sept. 11 "there's been a lot of good work done," he also highlighted passenger screening as an area of potential improvement and said the industry was too dependent on technology.

"For as long as we rely on technology alone, the events of Sept.11 will be able to be repeated by the terrorists around in the world," Baum said. "Metal detectors and X-ray machines were OK in the 60s ... but they can't pick up small blades, or knives made out of plastic or some other substance."

The solution, Baum said, is to implement passenger profiling combined with assessments of pre-flight behavior. While admitting that such a system might be open to abuse, Baum said it wouldn't necessarily lead to racial or ethnic profiling, a concern raised by civil liberties groups.

"To be effective screening won't focus on race or ethnicity alone," he said. "Airlines need to look for people who don't fit in on a particular flight."

"Terrorists won't always be Middle Eastern suicide airplane hijackers," he said, citing the Oklahoma City bombing as an example.

Observing passengers for nervousness or unusual behavior is also important, Baum said.

"Eleven out of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers gave airlines some cause for concern before boarding the flight," he said. "At the same time, we also need to be looking for criminals and violent people.

Industry view

William Gaillard, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), also said that better passenger screening would improve passenger security.

But the Geneva-based IATA, which represents major airlines, advocates the use of biometric data like fingerprints and iris scans to positively identify passengers - and terror suspects - before they board airplanes. The association wants biometric information linked to criminal and terrorist suspect databases.

"A number of the Sept. 11 hijackers could have been flagged (for extra security attention)," Gaillard said. "If one or more of the hijackers could have been stopped, the whole plot could have been averted."

Gaillard said Sept. 11 shouldn't be thought of as an attack merely on the aviation industry and stressed that a wider approach to airline security is warranted.

"One priority is better coordination between law enforcement and intelligence agencies," he said. "A global approach needs to be taken."

The IATA is lobbying for government support for further security measures.

"Governments around the world are going to have to help pay for some of these security improvements out of general funds," Gaillard said. "Airlines can't do it alone."

'Reactive' criticism

Both Yates and Baum criticized the aviation industry for being "reactive" instead of proactive, a tendency they said would compromise security in the future.

"Are we just going to wait for the next attack to defend against new threats?" Baum wondered.

"When we look back over the last 30 years, all the security improvements in the aviation industry have come in response to a particular incident," Yates said. "The industry needs to take a more proactive stance."

Both men said that while attacks such as the Sept. 11 atrocities might be repeated, future attacks could surprise security officials in a number of ways.

"I think the chances of another suicide hijacking are on the low side," Yates said. "The next major threats might be biological or chemical attacks aboard planes, because vials of noxious substances are not going to be picked up by existing scanners."

Yates also noted that airline computer systems could be vulnerable to attack by hackers.

"Multiple attacks on information technology could occur that could compromise both safety and business systems," he said. "Airlines wouldn't be able to tell how many passengers they have, where they're going or how much they paid for their tickets."

"We've got to start to think in a more educated manner," Baum said. "There's a lot of really good things going on to boost security at the moment ... but we're still over-reliant on technology."

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