Aviation is faced with constant and often changing challenges but none has proven as intractable as the question of security in an age of terrorism. Following 9/11, the US put in place a vast number of policies that continue to be controversial both at home and abroad. And those actions have had wide-ranging effects.
Though no longer the top aviation market, US cities continue to be prime network points for the world’s airlines, necessitating compliance with US standards. Those who regularly travel to or from the US are aware of the additional levels of screening imposed on US bound passengers.
The global expenditure on security is staggering—currently USD7.4 billion and climbing, yet stories of evasion and circumvention appear on a regular basis. Each breach seems to up the ante and create yet more hassle and inconvenience for the majority of travelers and, in the US, often bumps up against constitutional questions.
Recently, the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) announced that it will once again try to establish a trusted traveler program, a concept that has long been discussed and repeatedly failed. Consumer groups, including the influential Business Travel Coalition (BTC), a group composed primarily of corporate travel managers, both welcomed the initiative and noted shortcomings that might make this attempt a non-starter as well.
Just to make things even more complicated, the US General Accounting Office (GAO) just released a report entitled, “Combating Terrorism: Additional Steps Needed to Enhance Foreign Partners’ Capacity to Prevent Terrorist Travel,” which concludes that US interests still are vulnerable due to shortcomings abroad.
One of the observations made is that there are glaring gaps in the flow of information such as Pakistan’s refusal to share fingerprint data and the widespread “failure to consistently report lost or stolen passports to the International Criminal Police Organisation (INTERPOL)”.
The report is also critical of new and expensive initiatives proposed by the TSA, which the GAO cites as “unproven”. The report is also critical of the lack of central control in the US, noting that seven different agencies train staff in finding false documents.
At last month’s IATA AGM in Singapore, there was a panel discussion on security and its implementation that brought to light the difficulty of establishing a “global standard” for security. There were significantly different views held by the panelists and their inability to agree on a viable standard simply reinforced the complexity of the problem.
The impressive panel included Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General of the World Customs Organization, Ronald Noble, Secretary General of Interpol, John Pistole, Administrator of the TSA, Dave Barger, CEO, President and Director of JetBlue, Siza Mzimela, Group Chief Executive of SAA and Elyezer Shkedy, President and CEO of El Al.
While all agreed that aviation remains at risk in a volatile world, subsequent comments revealed little further agreement. Given the myriad threats that exist, it was agreed that the best that can be achieved is risk mitigation, with the complete elimination of risk an unattainable goal.
The questions raised during the session served to reveal the complexity of the challenge. In one example, the panel was challenged by the “one size fits all” mentality when asked whether a 50 seat commuter aircraft posed the same “weapons potential” as a fully laden B747. And, in response to the vital question “Do passengers have rights?”, the answer from those charged with security enforcement was a very muted yes, showing that concerns over civil liberties may have some validity.
In listening to the points raised by the various panelists, it is little wonder that there was a lack of consensus. Within the airline contingent, there was concern over the allocation of cost and the hassle factor that discourages travel, with El Al having, understandably, a somewhat different view. While Israeli security has been cited as being the most rigorous, the other airlines saw that degree of security as being a clear deterrent to growth, especially in places like South Africa where new passengers can be easily intimidated by intrusive practices.
El Al, of course, has for decades had stringent security and, because of its unique situation, passengers accept the more complex procedures. But even there, El Al’s CEO commented that many of those practices, if applied elsewhere, might be less effective than thought because they have a predictability that potential terrorists could exploit. And he said that the cost of El Al’s security is even higher than that seen elsewhere. So even security’s most eager advocate expressed doubts about the “more is better” approach.
JetBlue’s Dave Barger noted that if attacks on airlines are indeed an attack on the nation’s infrastructure, why are the costs not seen as a government responsibility, rather than a fee to be passed on to passengers? There were also observations that when increased security is employed at other venues, such as sporting events or increased surveillance on other forms of transport, consumers are not charged additional fees.
Interpol’s Noble was especially critical of the inability to assess the authenticity of documentation, stating that forged and illegal passports and badges are increasingly easy to obtain. Without confirmation that the passport or badge holder is indeed the person to whom it was issued, any system of control rapidly breaks down, a complaint echoed in the GAO report.
The TSA’s Pistole acknowledged that the current US system has flaws and is being increasingly criticised by passengers, but stated that it is perhaps the best system possible at the present time and with the current technology. He did reference a resurgent “trusted traveler” program, but, as noted by the BTC, the proposal may have fatal flaws that could doom this attempt if left uncorrected.
In the cargo realm, harmonisation of policies and standards was seen as one key to improved security, with freight being a concern not just for airlines but for all forms of global shipment. Despite the obvious risks, cargo security remains even more fragmented than is found in passenger screening.
The primary stumbling block appears to be not at the screening level, but rather much higher up the chain where governments need to agree on standards for operation and the sharing of intelligence. However, for governments, information is power, and they are reluctant to share that information even in pursuit of a common goal.
If stolen passports are easily available in Kenya or fake IDs plentiful in Thailand, potential terrorists will find the tools to create mayhem. If security checks diligently screen passengers while letting others with fake documents pass unexamined, the effort and expense can be quickly negated.
There was general agreement that a better flow of information would be beneficial to all parties. All the panelists conceded that proper risk management is directly connected to timely and accurate information and that at present, the reluctance of governments and regulators to freely share—or even agree on the parameters of—relevant information, continues to be a stumbling block to effective global standards.
While a fascinating session in terms of perspectives, the group also made it clear that there are different priorities and perspectives that continue to inhibit a truly “global” solution.
Even as airlines enter joint ventures and share the most sensitive information regarding pricing and operations, their national regulatory agencies continue to hoard data that could be key to preventing disaster.
Unless and until these issues are resolved, security will continue to be a thorn in the industry flesh and water bottles will still be viewed as weapons.
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