Airport security in focus: aviation leaves back door open

Security experts say failures to check on airport workers have left an "open door" for terrorists

Ground crew unload luggage from a flight. Many airports around the world, not just Sharm El Sheikh and Egypt, remain vulnerable to threats from staff, who have until now gone largely without adequate screening. AFP
Powered by automated translation

The doomed Metrojet Flight 9268 has cast serious doubt over security procedures at airports in the region and across the world. An emphasis on passenger screening has left the industry vulnerable to threats from staff.

Suddenly, in what security experts increasingly believe was the devastating blast of a bomb over the Sinai last week, all the hard-won certainties of civil-aviation security appear to have been blown away.

Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, air travellers have complained about the long security queues at airports and endured ever-evolving regulations that demand they remove their coats, belts and shoes, ditch liquids and, most recently, turn on electrical devices to prove they are what they seem to be.

It has been a game of catch-up, with the terrorists setting the pace.

Shoe screening was introduced in 2001 after British radicalised Muslim convert Richard Reid attempted to set off explosives in his shoes on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami, Florida.

In 2006, liquids, gels and aerosols were banned from carry-on bags after British security officials foiled a plot to use liquid explosives to blow up a flight from the UK to the US.

Last year, passengers on some routes in and out of the UK and elsewhere were “required to show that electronic devices in their hand luggage are powered up”.

At some airports, certain airlines have even introduced their own security checks at boarding gates. British Airways does this at Abu Dhabi, but refuses to say why, or where else it does so.

“We continue to work closely with airports and governments around the world,” is all a spokesman would say.

Through it all, although, has been the reassuring thought that, if it makes us safer, then surely all the inconvenience of air travel has been worth it.

But if – as seems increasingly likely – a bomb was smuggled on board the doomed Metrojet Flight 9268 at Sharm El Sheikh by an airport worker, none of that now counts for anything.

While airline staff are rather pointlessly asking you if you’ve packed your own bag and security personnel are scanning your shoes, who, exactly, is screening and monitoring the hundreds of people who work at the airport with easy access to baggage and cargo areas?

Matthew Finn, managing director of Augmentiq, a consultancy that works with governments and the industry to improve security at airports, ports and borders, says that in focusing on the threat from suicide bombers and hijackers, governments and the aviation industry have left “a back door” wide open.

“We don’t spend anywhere near enough time considering the potential of an insider threat,” he says.

“We focus on passengers, bags, tweezers and toothpaste, liquids and gels – things we think are important. But we need to step back and see a bigger picture, which includes staff, and that is where we’re vulnerable because we’re not doing that well enough.”

Passengers have no way of knowing whether the airport they are using is safe, he says. “There’s a back door open, and that erodes confidence and makes us think that the passenger security checks are just pure theatre.”

Even in the US, which after 9/11 is one of the world’s most security-conscious countries, it was only in January this year that the Transportation Security Administration woke up to this insider threat.

In December last year, it emerged that a group of airport employees had been regularly smuggling guns and ammunition on aircraft flying from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta to New York.

It was, Brooklyn district attorney Kenneth Thompson said at the time, an “egregious breach of security… if they can put guns on the plane they could have easily put a bomb on”.

The TSA said the case raised questions about potential vulnerabilities regarding the screening and vetting of all airport-based employees and in April, following a review, imposed new regulations on US airports, tightening the screening of airport staff.

To the average air passenger, the fact that such measures aren’t already in place in every airport around the world, let alone in the US, will be both astonishing and worrying.

Certainly, members of the US homeland security committee’s subcommittee on transportation was shocked to discover this loophole.

“TSA spends billions of dollars every year to ensure every passenger is screened before boarding a commercial flight,” Republican chairman John Katko said during a hearing in April. “What good is all of this screening at the front door if we are not paying enough attention to the back door?”

Airport security around the world is regulated in member countries by the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which was founded in 1944 but didn’t issue its first guidance on the subject until 1974, by which time acts of sabotage and hijackings had become almost commonplace.

“In 1944,” notes the organisation on its website, “no one foresaw such security threats and the need for security measures.”

Since 1974, the ICAO’s aviation security manual – a document not publicly available – has been updated 14 times “in light of new threats and technological developments”.

The most recent edition, issued a year ago, includes guidance on “landside security, and screening of persons other than passengers”.

It remains to be seen whether the aviation authorities in Egypt, home to the Middle East headquarters of the ICAO in Cairo, had taken this guidance on board before the loss of Flight 9268.

But many airports around the world, Mr Finn says, remain vulnerable to this weakness.

“Some of the comments that have come out about the security gaps in Sharm El Sheikh are not unique to that airport, or to Egypt,” he says.

“They happen in many other airports in many other parts of the world as well, where you hear stories of security equipment being turned off, or of staff behaving inappropriately.”

His comments were echoed this week by the chief executive of easyJet, who declined to name names but said that security needed to be tightened urgently in many airports.

This was, said Carolyn McCall, “not a blanket message, it’s a very specific message about certain airports around the world”.

But, for security reasons, it is not a message that is being shared with paying passengers, who are being left in the dark as to which airports are potentially unsafe.

On Sunday, British foreign secretary Philip Hammond revealed that experts from the UK’s department of transport were “travelling continually” through international airports, inspecting security procedures.

Although reassuring on the surface, it is also alarming that in a post-9/11 world such intervention is still considered necessary.

“What we have to do is ensure that airport security everywhere is at its best and that it reflects local conditions,” Mr Hammond said. “One of the key issues about keeping airports safe is the training, management and motivation of staff.”

He hinted that the UK, among other countries, might soon be demanding improved security at other airports in the Middle East.

“If this turns out to be a device planted by an ISIL operative, or by somebody inspired by ISIL,” he said, “then clearly we will have to look again at the level of security we expect to see in airports in areas where ISIL is active.”

The department of transport confirmed that teams of inspectors regularly “engage with other countries, and particularly those where there are direct flights from the UK by British airlines”.

The visits were not carried out under cover, a department of transport spokesman said, but in cooperation with national authorities. For security reasons he declined to discuss further details of the inspectors’ work or name the countries they visited.

In the Middle East British Airways flies direct to 14 airports – Abu Dhabi, Amman, Bahrain, Beirut, Cairo, Dammam, Doha, Dubai, Jeddah, Kuwait, Muscat, Riyadh, Sharm El Sheikh and Tel Aviv.

Virgin has a direct service to Dubai and easyJet flies to two destinations in Egypt, Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada, a resort particularly popular with Russian tourists on the west bank of the Red Sea.

The UK’s intervention was to be welcomed, Mr Finn says, because around the world security is not the same. “There are minimum requirements established internationally by the ICAO, but many countries raise the bar and the UK is one of them.”

But while it was helpful that such countries shared their expertise “to support a minimum-requirement operation and show them how they can raise the bar in their country as well”, globally there was no good independent international inspection regime in place.

“Inspections and audits do happen, carried out by the ICAO and the TSA in the US, and the European Civil Aviation Conference,” he says. “But there needs to be more of them, and we need to spend a lot more time thinking about the people working in aviation.”

It is, he says, a real concern that in many airports around the world staff working in sensitive areas “can pass through security unchecked… how frustrating it is when you have your toothpaste and bottle of water taken away from you, and you then see a cleaner or other airport worker waved through, without any checks – and carrying a bottle of water”.

Now, he says, for the sake of safety and consumer confidence, the many players that constitute the aviation industry must come together to act collectively.

“Yes, the industry is sitting bolt upright, because it has been deeply affected by the loss of 224 lives in this way, but I’m not sure anyone is clear as to who owns the solution.

“My point is we all do and we’ve got to work together to implement it. We’ve got to give as much attention to the people working in airports as we have done for the past 15 years to passengers and their bags.”