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What happened to Metrojet Flight 9268?

151102120309-russia-plane-crash-black-box-exlarge-169The crash of Metrojet Flight 9268 has brought forth wide speculation about what happened to the plane. It seems that in any plane crash today we always go through a phase where we try to determine if it was terrorist related. This is not unusual, in fact it is routine, but I think it is more prevalent in recent times.

According to the latest news reports, intelligence sources, anonymous of course, in the United Kingdom and in the United States are saying this is terrorism. They apparently are basing their conclusions on messaging between various ISIS operatives, but so far no physical evidence has been uncovered to suggest that the crash is terrorist related. That does not mean it is not terrorist related, and information continues to come in. Sadly, I think there is a tendency for many people to want this to be a ISIS-caused terrorist event, just because that seems to be more interesting than a “normal” plane crash. I also think the psychological factor, that if we know it was a terrorist event, then we think we can assign some blame, rather than some stress fracture, or maintenance, or other issue, where it’s hard to point the finger.

Most everyone has heard that aviation is the safest form of transportation, but we will never eliminate all accidents. There will always be some number of maintenance issues, pilot errors, structural design flaws, or just plain bad luck, that will continue to cause planes to crash from time to time. Since we don’t know what caused the crash, let’s talk about what we do know, security procedures. Well – we know what should be done, what we don’t know is what is done and to what level.

If this is a bomb, there are a few ways it could have been brought on board – either through the passenger security checkpoint as carry-on baggage, or by being placed in checked baggage or in cargo, or being placed on the aircraft by an insider, such as an airline or airport employees with access to the aircraft. Bombers may stay with the device and be destroyed along with it, or may have gotten the bomb on board and vanished into the night (it’s easier to find people that will kill for their cause, rather than die for it, but the ones that will die for it are harder to catch).

It is wrong to assume that every country in the world performs security and screening the same way we do in the United States. Here in the US, checked baggage is screened using Explosive Detection System technologies, which in many cases our medical grade CAT scan x-ray devices. Carry-on bags are screened by TSA personnel using advanced technology x-ray machines. Their capabilities are slightly less than the CAT scan machines – CAT scan machines  operate largely independently, whereas AT x-ray machines at the checkpoint includes human interpretation of imagery, in additional to some computer interpretation. Cargo is screened through a variety of methods, including physical inspection and x-ray, Explosive Detection System or Explosive Trace Detector technologies.Throughout most of the world, where checked bag screening is conducted, standard x-ray machines are used (i.e. not medical grade CAT scans), with the machines operating autonomously, with little human intervention. But even with the best machines and technology, they must be calibrated and well maintained of in order to be effective.

The International Civil Aviation Organization Sets forth the security requirements for Contracting States (countries) for virtually all areas of aviation security. ICAO Annex 17 (Safeguarding International Civil Aviation Against Acts of Unlawful Interference), addresses the requirements for screening. As defined in Annex 17 the definition of Screening is: The application of technical or other means which are intended to identify and/or detect weapons, explosives or other dangerous devices, articles or substances which may be used to commit an act of unlawful interference.

Annex 17 also states (in 4.5.1 Measures related to hold baggage), that Each Contracting State shall establish measure to ensure that originating hold baggage (what we called checked-baggage in the US), is screened prior to being loaded onto an aircraft engaged in commercial air transport operations departing from a security restricted area.

ICAO also publishes Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPS) to demonstrate acceptable methods of compliance with Annex 17 (i.e. the regulations). Titled ICAO Doc 8973 Security Manual for Safeguarding Civil Aviation Against Acts of Unlawful Interference, the document describes how aircraft and airport operators can conduct the screening function. The guidance in Doc 8973 is “restricted” which isn’t an official Sensitive Security Information (SSI) classification as it’s an international document, but in the interest of protecting certain security measures, I’ll avoid quoting the guidance. Suffice to say that there are various forms and levels of screening that can be conducted, and not all of them involve x-raying the bags or cargo.

So, it’s possible that although screening measures were carried out on Flight 9268, those measures may have been less effective than here in the US or in other nations. If a device was brought on board by an employee-insider with access, then we’re talking about a VERY wide application of security measures. Even here in the US, not all airport identification badge holders (i.e. employees) are required to go through the passenger screening checkpoints, and throughout the world, depending on the airport, there are even fewer security controls on employee access.

Also noteworthy is that Aircraft Operators are ultimately responsible for ensuring that everything and everyone put on their aircraft has been properly screened – aircraft operators also have the option of applying additional security measures, if they feel that the country to which they are flying, do not meet their standards. This is likely why the UK has suspended flights, because if a British Airways flight blows up, then ultimately the liability can come right back to the air carrier. Pan Am did this after the bombing of Flight 103 over Lockerbie – they instituted the behavior recognition processes that were used in Israel at the time, but due to passenger complaints soon rolled back that procedure – and subsequently went out of business.

If investigators determine this is a bomb, then the next question is: how did it get on board? Passenger, baggage, cargo or employee?

That said, as of this writing, a bomb has not been clearly identified as the cause. Remember TWA 800, which presented like a bomb the NTSB determined it was a fuel tank explosion, or United Airlines Flight 232, which experienced a stress fracture, causing an engine to FOD-out – the flight crash-landed in Sioux City, Iowa, or Aloha Flight 243, which basically became a convertible halfway to Hawaii, due to explosive decompression. There are numerous other examples of planes just coming apart in flight for a variety of reasons, other than a bomb. Stay tuned.

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