The attempted bombing of Northwest Airlines Flight 253 brings aviation security back to center stage. The attempt of course brings many questions back to the forefront about aviation security, questions I have addressed in this blog previously. So, let’s use an interview style to address what inevitably will be questions being asked at media outlets and in political offices throughout today. Since we don’t have a lot of details right now, we’ll make some assumptions to make the points.
Q: How did the man get the bomb on the plane?
A: Despite security improvements, most passengers still only pass through a walk thru metal detector, not an “explosives detector.” The metal detector does what it says on the box, it detects metal. Concealing bomb making materials on the body is not inconceivable, and as long as they are not metal, they likely won’t be detected, at least not by that technology.
Q: Is this the first attempt at a suicide bombing of an aircraft?
A: Certainly not. These types of attempts go back to the 60s and 70s when people brought dynamite on board and blew themselves and the planes up. The most recent occurred in Russian in 2004 when two terrorists brought down two Russian airliners using explosives allegedly strapped to themselves.
Q: Why was this man allowed to fly?
A: From what we know so far, he was not on a no-fly list. A dangerous tactic is called “one and done.” This means you take an individual with a very clean background, arm, train and prepare them for an attack and send them on their mission. There is no prior criminal activity to make anyone suspicious of them. They do their attack – they either die, are arrested or succeed (and still sometimes die), or they escape. Additionally, there is a “triage” of sorts with respect to putting people on the Selectee or No-Fly List. Some people may be suspicious or perhaps their cell phone number came up associated with a known bad guy so they are on a list, but not the n0-fly.
Q: Why didn’t screening catch this? Is this a failure of the system?
A: Screening does not catch everything. It’s just impossible to have 100% security. It’s about deterrence and making it as difficult as possible. I recall what former Senator Gary Hart once said about aviation security after 9/11: “No one believes in absolute security. But the goal is to make it as difficult for the attackers as possible, and we had not done that.”
Think about protecting your home. Most of us agree that regardless of security measures, such as leaving your lights on, getting a mean dog and an alarm system, etc., if someone wanted to, they could still defeat the measures and break into your house. You are trying to make it as difficult as possible in the hopes they will decide not to rob YOUR house and go somewhere else. We need to continue to focus on deterrence and making it as difficult as possible to attack aviation.
Q: What can be done about preventing this type of attack in the future?
A: For an immediate solution, TSA has already implemented some good measures such as deploying K-9 to the checkpoints and conducting more random screening and increased inspections. These improvements need to continue. The Israelis can run K-9 teams on a consistent basis, rotating three dogs 20 minutes on, 40 minutes off per hour. We need more and more dogs. They are a visible deterrent and an effective defense.
For a long term solution, after the 2004 Russian airliner bombings, TSA deployed portal trace detection equipment (known as “puffers”) that do detect explosives. However, their use was limited to secondary screening only as they are not as fast as a metal detector, nor are they currently as resilient. TSA has been deploying the Whole Body Imaging technology, which would likely have detected a device or elements of a device hidden on the individual. Again though, these are only used for secondary screening as they do take longer than a metal detector and there are privacy rights groups that are in opposition to the technology. Regardless the deployment needs to be accelerated.
Q: What does this mean for the future for air travel?
A: As we’ve done in years past, the farther away we get from the last incident, the less we remember why we’re implementing all of these security measures. This brings the issues back to center stage. We need to continue to do what we’ve done. We’re heading in a good direction and need to keep the momentum. What TSA will do from here is learn from the experience. TSA bomb appraisal officers already invent new types of potential explosive devices for screeners to see and learn from, and this will likely be a good case study, which will make it harder for the next attacker to succeed.
We don’t have to panic. The system is working and continues to work. Improvements continue to be made. What does need to occur is the continued deployment of better screening equipment, continued deployment of behavior detection personnel and continued focus on aviation security – we can’t lose sight of our goal as obviously, the bad guys haven’t lost sight of aviation as a target.
Q: Anything else?
A: The confirmation of Erroll Southers to head TSA. His appointment has been stalled for political reasons. The organization needs leadership and has been leaderless for a year. Erroll has outstanding qualifications and needs to be confirmed quickly. He should then turn attention to more inspections of U.S. air carrier operations overseas to ensure our flights are getting the security protection they need.
I applaud the passengers on the flight, who today, are an integral part of security and their own protection. We all need to take more responsibility for our own actions rather than waiting for big brother to protect us. If a passenger sees something suspicious, they need to notify someone or take action.
Q: What do you think about the new security rules about passengers not being allowed to move during the last hour of flight, or being able to have anything on their laps during that time?
A: My first reaction is that this is acting without thinking. Unless there is something I’m missing here, what’s the difference between the last hour of flight from every other hour of flight? I mean, what’s the point? If this guy had attempted his bombing during the middle of the flight, would the new security procedure to be to make everyone stay in their seat during that particular hour? This hurts aviation without adding a security benefit.
Besides the increasing inconvenience to air travelers, restricting passengers from activities during the last hour and discouraging travelers from carry-on bags, limits the time and ability of business travelers to do business. A lot of the airline industry is still supported by the business traveler — continuing to push business travelers to other options, such as webcams and private aircraft will soon result in increasing commercial airfares for everyone else.
We need to remember the lessons of the bomb plots that were thwarted in London in 2006 that led to the liquid ban. When U.K. authorities required passengers to check all carry-on bags, that led to a huge disruption for business travelers and increased theft rates as airline employees and screeners went shopping through the checked bags for cell phones, laptops, iPods, you name it. Laptop theft also results in identity theft and the theft of corporate information.
Decisions about securing aviation as we move forward should be focussed on actually improving security, not giving the appearance of improving security, particularly when the appearance is so transparent.