Airline security - impacting on freedom of travel

February 2004 News

When I first started travelling to North America in the late 1960s air travel was still quite a pleasant experience. With smaller aircraft like the 707 and VC-10 queues at check-in were minimal, service on board was excellent and concerns about security were zero with requests to visit the cockpit being the norm and the Captain making his personal round of all passengers to ensure that everything was in order. At New York’s Kennedy Airport, British Airways even provided limousines to transfer you between terminals. Today all that is changed and with millions of people travelling by air the experience has become quite unpleasant unless you can afford the luxury of a First or Business Class ticket.

Air travel is now set to become more of a nightmare with the United States becoming more and more paranoid regarding security. Having already forced airports to significantly increase security in the checking in and boarding process, forced the removal of proper cutlery from flights flying into their airspace (ever tried to cut a medium steak with a plastic knife?) and forced all airlines to have reinforced cockpit doors, they now want carriers to introduce armed air marshals. It is interesting to note that while plastic cutlery is the norm for flights into the US and the UK, SAA still offers wine from bottles and a broken bottle is I believe a much more dangerous weapon than even a knife.

Subtle opposition

While some European carriers (including British Airways and Air France) initially refused to implement use of air marshals, the subtle delaying of flights to the point of cancellation has seen some change in tactics. Apparently Air France has already introduced armed personnel and British Airways has backed down on its strong anti stance, saying instead that it will consider them if certain conditions are met. These have not been defined yet but could include use of weapons that would not penetrate the aircraft skin and cause perhaps catastrophic decompression. Sudden decompression at cruising altitude might not bring the aircraft down but a window blown out at that altitude would mean that nearby passengers would be sucked out in a rather horrifying way. KLM, another airline that has reluctantly agreed to the concept of the air marshal has suggested that the on-board weapons should fire rubber bullets or anaesthetic projectiles. Fortunately for us, SAA has also rejected demands for air marshals saying it would rather cancel flights.

Welcoming 'VISIT'ors

Passengers travelling to the USA from South Africa have from the beginning of this year been subject to the so called US VISIT programme that requires travellers from countries without visa waivers to be photographed and fingerprinted. This data will be compared to terrorist watch lists. It will also be used in time to verify that the people presenting themselves at the port of entry in the US are the same as those who secured the visa in the first place. While the USA hails this programme as the biggest improvement in border security in decades it is full of loopholes. All EU countries for example have a visa waiver agreement with North America and the visa entry document is merely filled out during the flight.

Any real terrorist is surely going to use the European route for entry and not a country without a visa waiver. Another problem with these new US measures is that it will encourage tit-for-tat and indeed Brazil has already imposed a similar 'inconvenience' system for American visitors.

By the way even the EU is not escaping scot-free. There is a current demand (yet to be implemented) that airlines must provide some 34 pieces of information about passengers (from credit card details to meal preferences) before they board the aircraft. Although this could be seen as compromising Europe's strict data privacy laws it appears that they will have to agree. This follows a compromise where the data was reduced from 39 pieces of information as well as an assurance that it would only be used for terrorist-related investigations and not for other criminal activities. The EU has also insisted that the data be destroyed after 3½ years and not 50 years as initially demanded by the USA.

Another demand recently introduced is that passengers on flights heading for the USA will not be allowed to congregate around the toilet areas. I still cannot figure out how this is going to work as the only way to access the bathroom on a full flight is to queue! Maybe we will have to go back to our school days and raise our hands to ask the stewardess if we can use the loo, or maybe we will be issued with a number and called when it is our turn. This rule is compounded by the fact that many airports in the USA now restrict you from using the bathrooms once you have reached the gate lounge as someone may have stashed a knife or other weapon for you in the toilet cistern.

Passenger classification

One of their latest ideas is to classify passengers according to personal information into three categories, green, yellow and red. Green means that the individual is considered low risk, while yellow signifies that they could be a risk to the aircraft safety so presumably the air marshal will keep a special eye on them. A red classification (probably applicable if you have made any trips to so-called terrorist countries) will mean that the airline will have to refuse to allow the passenger on board.

Social engineering - a technology failure?

The development of the Concorde was a brilliant example of European cooperation and though they both tried, neither the US nor Russia was able to copy or replicate the technology. The success of the Concorde was then doomed to failure as a result of an extended battle to get rights to fly in and out of US airports (excessive noise being claimed), and the only two customers remained the then national airlines of Britain and France. Now we see another leap in aircraft technology with the Airbus 380 which will be able to carry almost twice as many passengers as the existing 747 fleet.

Once again Boeing has no answer and sees the future as being the use of marginally faster aircraft with passengers limited to below 200 people. With existing security arrangements (post 11 September) boarding a full 747 has become a nightmare so if further security measures are introduced, Boeing could be quite correct in its assumption as it is unlikely that passengers will be comfortable with even further delays. Will security this time result in the failure of yet another European technological jump in air transportation?

The future ... what can we expect?

What new security measures can we expect to see in the near future? Walk in booths that 'sniff' a person for the presence of explosives (or narcotics) are already a reality and one was demonstrated at a recent defence exhibition in London. The highly successful Lodox system developed by our own De Beers (to X-ray workers on a daily basis at very low dosage) is already in trials at hospital trauma centres to allow medical staff to have almost immediate access to a full body X-ray of critically injured patients.

This technology would be equally applicable to total screening of travellers with sophisticated software detecting anything suspicious, including presumably narcotics often contained in swallowed condoms. At least that would remove the current inconvenience of having to remove your shoes at the security checkpoint but I wonder whether the general public wants a stranger to see the full details of their anatomy.

Missile detection systems

As for aircraft themselves the latest identified threat is attack during take off or landing by shoulder launched missiles which seem to be as common today as the ubiquitous AK-47. Missile detection systems for aircraft are nothing new and indeed local company, Avitronics, is at the forefront of such defence technology. The warning systems are typically deployed on slow moving military aircraft like helicopters and transport aircraft and they are set to deploy flares and chaff on detection of a threat.

They also provide the pilot with an audible warning that allows for rapid evasive manoeuvres but I cannot see a heavily loaded passenger aircraft being able to use this ploy. In any event, several US-based companies are currently working on anti-missile systems for commercial aircraft, the US Department of Homeland Security having set a target price of $1 million per aircraft. According to some reports, El Al, which has used sky marshals for many years, also has missile warning and countermeasure devices fitted to their aircraft. Anyone that has flown El Al in the last decade or so will be aware that their ground security measures are amongst the toughest in the world and while you may be safer in the air the hassles of boarding encourages most people to use alternative carriers.

Terror vs human catastrophe

Horrifying as 11 September was, natural disasters such as the recent earthquake in Iran took many more lives and will be quickly forgotten. Despite all the security measures in force the system is far from fool-proof and as recently as January this year a passenger off a Virgin flight from Washington who was transferring to another flight at Heathrow was found to have several bullets in his jacket pocket. This was during the period where there was a heightened alert around flights flying in and out of Dulles with the cancellation of many flights from Europe as a result of security concerns. The US may pride itself on its superior security systems and yet something that should have been detected by a simple metal detector slips through.

In conclusion we can look forward to further increased security measures, particularly when travelling to North America. Our only hope is that it does not spread to other parts of the world. European airlines take the stance that security on the ground is the critical element and thank goodness when you fly back on SAA from any other airport than Heathrow you still get proper cutlery and glasses. I like to feel safe on an aircraft but the thought of bullets ricocheting around the aircraft cabin terrifies me even more.

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