How Safe are our Airports?
The aviation industry has always attracted my interests not just as a frequent flyer but because airports are so often used for criminal activities, particularly human trafficking, and terror offences.
If trained properly then airport staff can identify possible victims of human trafficking before they board the plane, allowing for intervention. Unfortunately, this type of training, if implemented at all, is only for airport security personnel, not for all airport employees, such as restaurant workers, shop staff, and cleaners etc. who have a vital role to play in the prevention of this crime.
We often associate Human Trafficking with male criminals, yet almost 40% of those convicted globally are female, and many of them use airports. Vulnerabilities which exist within the passport control system have allowed this problem to develop, particularly with the trafficking of children.
The UK has been fortunate in that there have only been two terrorist attacks on our airports. The 2007 Glasgow attack challenged the common make-up of the terrorist profile. The 1984 Heathrow attack, which came just after the London Libyan Embassy siege, has never been solved. Interestingly however one anarchist group attempted to claim responsibility. Although this claim was dismissed by the police, the behavioural patterns of that particular anarchist group, The Angry Brigade, which conducted 25 bomb attacks in the UK, have many similarities to the rising aggression of anarchist groups active around the world today.
Airline safety has evolved over the decades with multiple hijacks throughout the 60s, which appeared to be ending with the introduction of Sky Marshals in 1970. However, this policy was terminated in 1972 by US President Nixon who wanted to focus more on passenger screening and airport security. Originally this resulted in an increase in hijacks throughout the 70s which grew more violent with the introduction of religious fundamentalism. The 80s saw a rise in violence against passengers and even the destruction of aircraft mid-air, such as Lockerbie and Korea Air 858. There was a clear transition from taking hostages to killing passengers. And then of course airplanes used as weapons, as in the 9/11 attacks.
There are simpler disruptive attacks as we have seen with the recent use of drones, and laws have been introduced restricting their use in air space near airports. What I have not heard being discussed though is an attack through the intentional release of birds in the path of an incoming aircraft, which is why airport security must be taken outside of the perimeter.
Governments responded to the traditional threats with improved scanning of passengers. A popular Backscatter type scanner, as currently used at many international airports, raised concerns over privacy issues. Despite that it did apparently do the job it was employed for. However, it has only ever been tested to see if it could achieve the assigned tasks. It seems it was never tested adversarially. A number of vulnerabilities in this machine have been identified, including the passage of plastic explosives and weapons; however, these vulnerabilities were not, it seems, the official reason for the upgrades to the more modern MM Wave machines which are more popular today.
It is possible that several of the vulnerabilities which exist in the original Backscatter scanners still exist in the newer MMW models and these vulnerabilities could be exploited. It should also be noted that these machines are available to purchase on sites like E-Bay, and are also in use at airports in hostile states, and thus the potential vulnerabilities could be studied by those wishing us harm.
Air travel is still the safest form of transportation. In 2018 4.4billion air passengers travelled on 46.1 million flights through a network of 22,000 routes providing the world’s airlines with a net profit of some $30.billion. However, 25 million of those passengers were people being trafficked illegally, raising $32.billion for that illicit industry.
In the same year there were 11 fatal accidents resulting in 523 fatalities among passengers and crew which means you could take a flight every day for 16,581 years before experiencing a fatal accident in which everyone on board perished.
2019 saw 86 accidents resulting in 257 passengers and crew killed, not including one hijacker shot and killed by Bangladeshi Police, and 10 ground staff killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Anthony Hegarty MSc