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Aviation security is rising up the travel manager’s agenda as airports struggle to find effective technological solutions to terrorist threats
Just before Christmas 2014, baggage screening staff at Frankfurt Airport – Europe’s third busiest after Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle – were alleged to have committed a serious lapse of security. An undercover European Commission (EC) investigation reportedly found that about 50 per cent of the time they were unable to detect guns, explosives and other dangerous objects deliberately hidden in luggage passing through X-ray machines.
Although the EC declined to comment on the ongoing investigation – first revealed by German media – airport security staff have been given extra training in how to spot smuggled weapons on their X-ray screens, according to a spokesman for airport operator Fraport.
At the same time as Frankfurt’s potential security weakness was being exposed, officials at the US Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) were collating the full-year figures for guns – mostly loaded – discovered in passengers’ hand luggage at US airports.
They found a 22 per cent increase over the previous year to 2,212 guns, the highest total since the TSA started monitoring the incidence of guns in carry-on bags in 2005. Most of those caught claimed they had simply “forgotten” they had a loaded weapon with them; even so, they faced fines while some were arrested under local airport or state regulations.
HIDDEN DANGERSBut not everyone gets caught before boarding their aircraft. Last July, for example, an American who flew into Heathrow from Phoenix was found to have a loaded Glock handgun in his carry-on luggage. The gun was discovered by security staff when he tried to transfer to a Paris flight. Although the man was revealed to have a criminal record, no links to terrorism were discovered.
But aviation security experts think it probable there are an unknown number of other passengers flying with loaded guns who remain undetected, and some of those could be terrorists. Since armed US Federal Air Marshals are also on many international flights, the prospect of a Wild West-style mid-Atlantic shoot-out at 35,000 feet is the nightmare scenario.
Despite these fears, air travel is statistically shown to be one of the safest of all forms of transport. Although some dispute the methodology behind the claim – arguing that comparing air to, say, rail is like comparing chalk and cheese – there is no doubt that flying in commercial aircraft has become safer as a result of developments in flight technology. By some measurements, 2014 was the ‘safest year ever’ for commercial flying.
According to the Aviation Safety Network, which monitors all types of aviation crashes around the world, there were 21 fatal accidents involving passenger aircraft last year (the lowest ever in its database) compared with 29 in 2013 – but the death toll last year was 990, compared to 265 in 2013 and 475 in 2012. The main cause of the sharp spike in fatalities in 2014 was the loss of the two Malaysia Airlines B777s.
REAL RISKFlight MH17, shot down over Ukraine last year, put the spotlight on concerns that terrorism in all its forms – state-sponsored or carried out by individuals – remains a real risk. Little wonder, therefore, that traveller safety is moving up the agenda: it was the fifth most important issue for travel buyers surveyed before the Business Travel Show in London in February. In a similar survey last year, the issue was only ranked as being the tenth most important.
It may become an even bigger consideration in the light of the Germanwings crash in March which authorities say was deliberately caused by co-pilot Andreas Lubitz - killing all 150 people onboard when it went down in the French Alps. Lubitz was able to lock himself in the cockpit after the captain had left him alone at the controls to go to the toilet.
Travel management company HRG had already seen the issue take a higher priority with corporate clients, and is working with them to make sure their travel programmes “are fit for purpose in these times of heightened security”, according to Karen Smithson, HRG’s UK director of client management. “We are also seeing client travellers working far more often and more closely with their in-house security teams.”Are those responsible for buying and managing corporate travel right to be concerned about the threat to flying, even though the number of fatal airliner disasters keeps falling? Probably yes since, apart from a moral obligation, there are also statutory duty-of-care requirements that govern where and how employees are sent.This is a sensitive issue for companies, who are reluctant to get into the specifics of policies. But one travel manager from a major company did admit that utilising private jets was an option adopted more frequently, although generally for senior executives.In fact, a number of leading US organisations, such as the Walt Disney Company, actually mandate their CEOs to fly the corporate jet at all times – for personal as well as business use – because of security concerns. Whether top UK CEOs get the same perk is not so obvious, given the different corporate disclosure rules on this side of the Atlantic, although it seems likely.
SECURITY COSTSBut company travel costs are also impacted in other ways by security concerns. According to Airports Council International Europe, which represents over 450 airports in 45 European countries, security represented about one fifth of airport operating costs in 2012, with some four out of every ten employees being involved, and the cost is increasing.
As there is little public funding for many of these airports, these fees are inevitably passed on to the airlines – and travellers – in the form of higher fares generated by supplementary charges levied on airline tickets under various guises.
Moreover, increased airport security can often lead to delays, missed connections and missed meetings. For some regular travellers and corporate buyers, this raises questions of whether the trip is really necessary or if an alternative, such as videoconferencing, would be as effective.
Yet few business travellers would quibble at the massive investment in aviation security. In December 2001, just three months after the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid failed in his mid-air attempt to bring down American Airlines flight AA63 from Paris to Miami by detonating explosives hidden in his shoes. This helped drive a major international push to develop more effective X-ray scanning and other screening capabilities.
Momentum for a technological solution was accelerated after the 2006 ‘liquid bombs’ threat (see below) and the Christmas Day 2009 failed bid to blast a hole in an aircraft from Schiphol to Detroit using explosives hidden in the underwear of a radicalised Nigerian passenger.
Despite the substantial amounts of money that have been spent on developing these technologies, there have been mixed results. While X-ray scanning of baggage has probably been the most successful in a technical sense, its weakness – as shown by the Frankfurt investigation – is that it is vulnerable to operator failings. And advanced imaging technology – or body-scanning – has proved controversial, partly because of privacy concerns, but also due to persistent claims that the scanners are not fully effective and can potentially be circumvented by a determined terrorist.
Technology aside, there is another glaring weakness in airport security: the relatively lax checks on airport workers. This was sharply brought home to Americans last December by the arrest and charge of a man who had been smuggling guns (more than 150 on 17 Delta flights over several months) through Atlanta airport to New York, aided by an airport baggage handler working on the inside.
In this case, it was criminal gun-running rather than terrorism, but it has served as a wake-up call and political pressure is growing in the US to beef up ‘back-stage’ security. The drawback, as ever, is the issue of costs and funding, which inevitably will add to pressure on airport charges and fares.
SURVEILLANCE SYSTEMSYet the ‘next generation’ technology on the way is taking a different approach. This deploys computer-based surveillance systems, including facial scanning, biometrics and video analysis to detect suspicious behaviour, such as terrorists ‘casing’ airport security. The aim is to find the individual behind the threat rather than simply search for the weapon.
“New scanning technology can certainly make a difference, but sophisticated use of intelligence will always be critical in keeping flights safe by countering terrorist attacks,” notes Wings Travel Management chief operating officer Paul East.
Perhaps the ultimate example of combining technology with on-the-ground intelligence is Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, which utilises latest scanning technology along with both overt and undercover ‘eyeball observation’ of passenger behaviour. And it’s worked so far: while the airport has been the target of several terrorist attacks, to date, no attempt to hijack a plane departing from Ben Gurion has succeeded.
LIQUID BAN UPDATEOn August 9, 2006, Heathrow and the rest of the world’s airports were thrown into chaos by the arrest of two dozen men in London on suspicion of a plot to blow up ten north American-bound aircraft with a new type of ‘liquid bomb’ assembled and detonated on suicide missions while the planes were over the north Atlantic. As a result, billions of global airline passengers have been inconvenienced for nearly a decade by the rules on how liquids, aerosols and gels (LAGs in security speak) can be carried on board an aircraft.
Although the strategy worked, since there have been no commercial aircraft brought down by liquid bombs (although the cause of Malaysia Airlines MH370’s disappearance remains unknown), it remains a real threat in spite of scepticism is some quarters.
According to former TSA head John Pistole, speaking shortly before his retirement last December: “One classified briefing on what the actual threats are would, hopefully, convince the doubters these threats are real and the stakes are high.”
While there has been significant progress in developing technologies to identify potential liquid bombs, the problem is how to do this reliably and without creating additional delays going through security channels. A number of detection systems are in use around the world, including a scanner from Oxfordshire-based Cobalt Light Systems, which is being trialled by Heathrow and Gatwick along with 63 other airports around the world.
The EC has been keen to find a resolution to the liquids problem and, early last year, allowed bottles of alcohol or perfume larger than 100ml to be bought from airport duty-free shops and carried in special bags (known as security tamper evident bags, or STEBs) through security screening by transfer passengers changing flights. European airports are now mandated to use new electronic screening technology on liquids carried in these bags, which must not be tampered with or opened before the traveller’s final destination is reached.
If this scheme proves successful (it is still being evaluated) it may be extended to other liquids, although this would need further EC legislative amendments – making the EC’s goal of allowing all liquids to be screened and carried this way by next January rather optimistic. The US is also thought not to be keen to rush into a significant relaxation of the curbs on LAGs. “That’s a long-term goal, not in the near future,” according to Pistole.