London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's main airline pilots union demanded more action and less talk Tuesday after the U.K. government announced a planned airport security overhaul.
As in the United States, air security in Britain was re-examined in the wake of Sept. 11, but not in time to prevent two massive robberies from occurring in supposedly secure areas of London's Heathrow Airport, one of the world's busiest hubs.
Last week, an advisory panel on security delivered a series of recommendations that earned the approval of Transport Secretary Stephen Byers and Home Secretary David Blunkett.
The panel suggested that by early May, airport operators should toughen requirements for issuing security passes, extend counter-terrorism and criminal record checks, improve closed-circuit television coverage at airport buildings and devise new standards for handling "high value" cargo.
"Airport security is kept under constant review and needs to be updated and revised in the light of changing circumstances," Byers said. "The government has accepted in full the recommendations from the group looking at airport security."
Byers also said he would use new powers under recently passed anti-terrorism legislation to formulate an approved list of aviation security companies and force airports to use only those firms.
BAA, the company that operates Heathrow and several other major British airports, said the airline industry would benefit from the changes.
"We have long urged government to introduce a requirement for criminal record checks to be made on identity pass applicants," BAA chief executive Mike Hodgkinson said in a statement.
But the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA) said the changes would make little difference in day-to-day airline security levels.
We've heard this all before," a spokesman said Tuesday "It's the same in the (United) States. There's lots of talk and then nothing concrete happens.
The spokesman said the BALPA welcomed tougher regulations but that the measures announced by the government didn't tackle the root problems of the airport security business.
"One of the problems is that security staff are paid very badly," he said. "We know of people leaving security jobs to take jobs at McDonald's. They're using cheap labor to do a cheap job and they're quietly hoping all the furor over Sept. 11 will go away.
"We want to see highly paid, highly trained personnel using sophisticated equipment to stop security threats on the ground. Once they get in the air, there's very little we can do about it," he said.
On Feb. 11, robbers took about $6.5 million in various currencies from a British Airways security van. About five weeks later, thieves struck again, stealing $3.2 million from a South African Airlines flight.
Police believe the same gang was responsible for both crimes and think the heists could have been inside jobs, with the thieves obtaining passes from security employees.
Aviation experts warned that the crimes could send out encouraging messages to terrorists looking to target airplanes.
Chris Yates, aviation security editor at Jane's Transport, said that if robbers could get into secure "airside" areas, passengers should be worried.
"If (robbers) can get airside they have access to aircraft. It only takes seconds to board an empty aircraft and plant a bomb," Yates said.
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