Photo: Screening technologies and processes have intensified since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Extra security measures have been put at place at major airports.
That line often follows news of an alleged foiled plot, an increase in a country’s terror threat level or, at worst, news of an attack somewhere in the world.
Analysts say air travel is vulnerable by nature because of all the moving parts and the potential weaknesses they create, so how has security evolved and what systems are in place to protect us now?
- THIS WEEK: Increased security measures were announced at major Australian airports after authorities foiled an attack. Virgin Australia said passengers should expect “an increased level of scrutiny” during the security screening process and travellers would need more time to get airside.
- APRIL: Additional random explosive detection tests and screening of electronic devices were imposed for passengers travelling to Australia from Dubai, Doha or Abu Dhabi.
- MARCH: American and British authorities temporarily banned all laptops and large electronic devices from carry-on luggage on flights travelling from 10 airports across the Middle East. These bans have since been scaled back.
Like most changes to security measures, the temporary ban on laptops was driven by intelligence that identified a vulnerability in the system, according to Dr John Coyne, head of border security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“Every time there is a threat or a risk that arises you see stages of response,” he said.
- Mitigate and reduce risk: it’s an immediate, high-security response often wide-ranging bans or screening processes
- Behind the scenes: authorities are working together to assess incoming information
- Review and adjust: after a set period of time authorities review security measures and determine which are still required and any that need adjusting
Take the laptop ban earlier this year for example.
“With the laptop threat from Al Qaeda earlier in the year, a raid in Yemen from US special forces had intelligence that revealed AQ was working on a laptop-based bomb to bring a plane down so the first reaction is to bring in heavy handed stuff, arrest the situation straight away,” Dr Coyne said.
“You see that within a couple of hours of an incident. It’s not just about the measures, it’s about the theatre.
“Part of it is stopping the bad guys but also discouraging the bag guys.”
Dr Coyne said authorities have a window of “48-72 hours, maybe up to a week, [before] it’s a question of what more permanent changes need to be made”.
“We bought ourselves some time with heavy-handed measures, but they cost time and money, and the public get disengaged with risk and just get annoyed about not being able to take inhalers and baby formula on the plane so you have a limited amount of time,” he said.
“With the laptop threat, do you need new ways to scan them, or swabbing them?”
Let’s take a look at some of the other incidents that have shaped airport security.
September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States
This moment made aviation security a global issue.
Two months after the attack, US lawmakers made airport security a federal issue forming what we all now know as the TSA, or the Transportation Security Administration.
The restrictions implemented by this body continue to reverberate around the world.
Particularly the banning of a wide range of implements from carry-on luggage and the strict screening processes that prevent them making it on board.
Some other changes in the US since 911 include:
- Only ticketed passengers are allowed through security screening
- Fortified aircraft cockpits
- 100 per cent checked baggage screening.
December 2001 shoe bomb attempt on Miami-bound flight
According to the TSA, Richard Reid, who would become known as the shoe bomber, used matches in an attempt to ignite explosive devices hidden in his shoes after departing Paris for Miami.
The threat continued and from 2006 the TSA required all passengers travelling in the US to remove their shoes for more scrutinised screening.
August 2006 foiled plot involving liquid explosives
British authorities detailed 24 terrorist suspects over plans to attack 10 transatlantic flights with liquid explosives carried in their hand luggage.
The flights were travelling from the UK to the USA and Canada.
Australia introduced measures limiting the amount of liquids, aerosols and gels allowed in carry-on luggage the following year, matching similar changes made across the world.
December 2009 attempted ‘underwear bomber’ attack
An Al Qaeda extremist attempted to detonate an improvised explosive device concealed in his underwear while aboard a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.
In March 2010 the TSA introduced advanced imaging units known as full body scanners “designed to detect non-metallic weapons, explosives and other threats which could be concealed under layers of clothing”.
Other precautions include, removing laptops and tablets from luggage to allow for better screening, enhanced pat downs, canine teams and restrictions on cargo.
People who want to do harm are ‘innovators’
“There is an easy way to 100 per cent secure airports and planes and that is don’t let people fly,” Dr Coyne said.
Despite the “outstanding security measures in airports, airlines and outstanding participation by the private sector” those who want to find and exploit the weaknesses in the system are innovating and so security systems need to keep developing to reduce those opportunities.
Will carry on eventually be banned?
Dr Coyne said historically there had been discussion about completely banning carry-on and “that was certainly the case straight after September 11” but he believes restriction is not the answer.
“I think improving search capability and improving search process — so improving x-ray machines, swipes for explosive residue,” he said.
“It is about making sure intelligence information is linked to those responsible for physical security, the operators.
“They’ve got to get lucky once, you’ve got to be lucky all the time.”