Airport security: a constant battle

October 2006 Integrated Solutions

Unless you are a first-class BA passenger, which means you cannot be a terrorist (it is just not done), you will probably find yourself inconvenienced in some way by security measures at Johannesburg International Airport (soon to be renamed O R Tambo International Airport).

The good news is that security hassles change, the bad news is that new ones are continually being invented and you, the traveller, will always be inconvenienced (except the aforementioned first-class BA passengers).

Given the latest terrorist scare from the UK and the resulting hysteria about taking dangerous substances like cosmetics or baby milk on an aeroplane, the question of airport security has once again been raised. In South Africa we are used to hearing about security issues - usually the failure of security processes - but terrorism has not (yet) made an impact on local security thinking.

What does feature regularly in stories we hear of airport insecurity are tales of hijacking, the latest one where a supposedly mentally unstable person was able to board and attempt to hijack SA322 in June this year (and he apparently managed to cause problems on a previous flight as well). We are also, of course, used to the more traditional robberies, such as the much-publicised one in March this year.

Contrary to the common perception that security at JIA is abysmal, the security processes at the airport have been under constant monitoring and improvements since 2004 (at least). One of the main problems faced at JIA is not a shortage of security personnel, but having too many different bits and pieces of the security machine operating independently.

In his address to the 256th Plenary Meeting of the Board of Airline Representatives in June this year, Jeff Radebe, MP, minister of Transport said: "Aviation safety and security is a natural, clear, present and future priority for all of us. ... As we know, the aviation environment comprises multiple role players whose interests differ slightly from one another, and where each endures different sets of pressures and priorities that do not always coincide smoothly with the world-view of other role players and stakeholders.

"In the midst of all this activity, the fine line between safety and security is often blurred, certainly in the minds of the general public. Airports around the world have become magnets for organised crime, as well as others, because of the specialised nature of their activities. It is our task to establish suitable measures and countermeasures to stop these activities in their tracks. Effective security in this complex environment must of necessity be multilayered and multidimensional. In the words of one report, it is necessary to secure the whole airport environment 'from [pavement] to cockpit'."

Easier said than done. When the British terror scare happened, UK airports almost closed down with the increased security measures and are still slow and cumbersome because of the additional security measures in force. Are these measures having any effect (apart from frustrated passengers)? Apparently Ryanair does not think it is worth much as it said it plans to sue the UK government for more than £3 million to compensate for losses caused by the security crackdown. As with the hysteria following the World Trade Center attack in New York, security in the UK seems to be too little, too late and directed at no particular target - unless you are flying BA first class, of course.

On the local front

Are we likely to see similar restrictions that hinder the flow of travel imposed in South Africa - as related to terrorism? The answer is no. Or at least, not at this stage. South Africa's National Aviation Security Committee, an organisation that advises the transport minister on aviation safety, regularly discusses the threats the country's planes and airports may face. The committee is composed of representatives of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Airport Company South Africa (ACSA), National Intelligence Agency, SAPS, South African Secret Service, South African National Defence Force and the Department of Home Affairs. This group has decided changes are not needed to flight schedules and security - of course, it cannot dictate what security measures other countries impose.

Nonetheless, one thing that can be learned from the UK fiasco is that knee-jerk security procedures do not help. Panicking is more likely to anger passengers, create more stress for security staff and cause delays and frustration to everybody except terrorists and first-class BA passengers.

Bruce Schneier, a well-known security commentator also noted that none of the aeroplane security measures implemented because of 9/11 had anything to do with the prevention of the London terror attacks. Additionally, they would not have prevented the planned attacks anyway if the terrorists had not been arrested.

Patrick Smith cynically commented in an article on "First it was tweezers, now mascara. Every penny spent confiscating makeup is a penny that could go toward law enforcement - where it really matters."

Fortunately, our South African government seems more intent on real law enforcement than hysterical over-reaction. The Government is acutely involved in aviation security and integrates local experience with assistance from ICAO and IATA. From this cooperation, the National Aviation Safety Plan came into effect in November 2004 to "rationalise, modernise, and ensure greater coordination amongst all role players in aviation".

What is being done

Radebe says a number of other ongoing initiatives and activities are at various stages of completion, including:

* New and comprehensive Civil Aviation Regulations on cargo security are in the last stages of approval before promulgation.

* The Civil Aviation Regulations have been amended to allow for: security audits; 100% hold baggage screening for both domestic and international flights; paper trails for pre flight inspections and improved security of the flight deck or cockpit door.

* Since November 2004, 72 Security Plans have been received for consideration and approval so far. These include 20 Airport Security Plans; 10 South African Airline Security Plans; and 42 Foreign Airline Security Plans.

ACSA has employed the services of outside security consultants, including the aviation security division of European aerospace and defence giant, EADS, to provide independent assessments of ACSA systems, structures and procedures. An initial report has already been prepared for consideration.

In addition, Civil Aviation Security has reported various activities aimed at improving aviation security, including:

* The establishment of an Implementation Committee to ensure both compliance and improved communication between the National Aviation Security Committee and the Local Airport Security Committees.

* Increasing the number and frequency of ad hoc oversight inspections and non-compliance tracking exercises.

* More regular security evaluation exercises to enhance airport security vigilance are being conducted.

* Securing management intervention to ensure appropriate filling of designated security management positions within the aviation security community.

Taking care of business locally is one thing, but our airports also need to be up to scratch when it comes to the strictest international security standards since South Africa is on the direct route to the USA and UK - among others. The USA Federal Aviation Authority and the USA Transport Security Administration examined Johannesburg International in February 2005 with a good overall rating. There were some operational issues that were identified as improvable, but the overall reaction was positive.

In a personal sense, we all want security to be tightened to protect us from crime in all its forms, but we do not want it to affect us in any way. This is of course impossible, but both the airports and airlines are businesses at the end of the day and their business is getting people from one location to the other. The simple answer is that it is in the interests of all parties to find the most efficient, fast and yet safe way to get their business done - and this requires cooperation between everyone.

In his speech, Radebe ended: "I therefore wish to call on BARSA and all other stakeholders to reinforce partnerships, critically assess our respective roles, obligations and contributions towards ensuring the highest possible level of aviation security, through our collective efforts, so that government's regulatory authorities and the relevant agencies can determine, after consultation, what steps we believe should be implemented to ensure that we keep ahead of the game."

Contrary to popular opinion, over the past few years much has been done in improving security at South Africa's airports and in the plane boarding procedures. And while those organisations involved can rightfully pat themselves on the back for a job well done, we all know that there have been slips in security (and probably will be again). The key, as highlighted by Radebe and the CAA is that aviation security is an ongoing process of continual improvement; and a process that South Africa seems to have well under control. In fact, even non-first-class BA passengers can feel safe when moving through South Africa's international airports.

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