Aviation: Do We Do Security … or Do We Just Plug Holes?

August 12th 2012 in Publications

By Capt. Craig Hall

You know, this question is at the crux of our entire security screening philosophy, not only in North America but world-wide as well.

Let’s look at the facts.

Hijacking first started to become a concern about sixty years ago, give or take. A quick Google search will reveal that the first hijacking took place in 1931 in Peru; that between 1948 and 1957 there were 15 hijackings; the number shot up to 31 in 1968 alone and then to 82 in 1969. Clearly, something had to be done. In the early 1970’s some basic security measures began to appear, and these were soon formally mandated and became commonplace.

Most of these early hijackings involved single perpetrators commandeering planes bound from the United States to Cuba. Invariably a firearm or other weapon was involved. The logical step was to institute procedures that focused on keeping these weapons off the aircraft, the assumption being that if we deny the hijacker the tools of his trade the problem will go away. After a fashion, it worked.

However, today we face a different threat. Organized attacks from fundamentalists are highly sophisticated and well thought out. But today, our strategy is essentially the same as it was in 1970; look for the bad object. Frankly, it’s time to carry out a wholesale re-think of that strategy.

Bad People, Not Just Bad Objects

The problem with today’s strategy is that it’s rooted in principles that are six decades old. The only thing that’s changed is the level of sophistication of our detection devices, and their resultant cost.

Every time we have stepped up our technology, the bad guys have found a way around it. So we throw more technology at it, at an astronomical cost. When the bad guys brought guns on the aircraft, we spent millions on metal detectors. Then they went to non-metallic weapons; we enhanced our technology with better X-ray and CT technology. Then they went to explosives; again we improved the CT technology and went to trace detection. When they found more creative ways to hide explosives, we made passengers take off their shoes. Then they switched to liquid explosives. We restricted the carriage of liquids and gels and now are trying to come up with technologies that will reliably detect liquid explosives. And when they went to difficult-to-detect explosives secreted in clothing, we responded with backscatter and millimeter wave technology. They are already looking for another way to beat this; we already know that surgically implanted explosives and explosives secreted in body cavities are being contemplated. These are currently almost impossible to detect. But it seems that we will spend billions more trying. And when we succeed… well, what will they try next? It’s like we are telling ourselves, “We can’t accept that our strategy is flawed; obviously we are doing the right thing, we just need to do more of it and spend more doing it.”

It’s a circular strategy, and we are using it to fight a battle that we can’t win. We don’t try to prevent tomorrow’s attack; instead we try to fix yesterday’s. We don’t do security. We plug holes. I am reminded of the story of the little Dutch boy frantically plugging holes in the dyke with his fingers. It’s a pretty apt metaphor, don’t you think?

Isn’t it time we shifted more of the focus to the terrorist as well as the tools of his trade?

Behaviour pattern recognition, contrary to popular perception, is nothing new. Every police officer since the days of Robert Peel’s first “bobbies” in 1829 has used the technique, either consciously or subconsciously, every time he finds himself face to face with a potential criminal. The Israelis are, of course, the best at it; that’s no secret. They have used the technique successfully for a long time.

I have heard the arguments that the SPOT (Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques) program in the States “has yet to catch a terrorist” and is therefore somehow a failure. This is, of course, an outrageous conclusion. It completely ignores the deterrence value of the program, which has been proven successful in leading to arrests for drug-related offences. This alone shows its effectiveness in identifying those with less-than-honourable intentions. Frankly, our airport screening technologies have caught no terrorists either, although many terrorists have defeated them.

Not too long ago I was in Ottawa where a senior CATSA representative told me how many “prohibited items” were confiscated at PBS (Pre-Board Screening) in a single year at Canadian airports. It was in the thousands. Undoubtedly she expected me to be impressed. I countered by saying, “That’s all well and good; but how many attacks did you prevent?” Somewhat taken aback, she had no answer. It was almost as if she thought that finding bad objects, not preventing attacks, was the mandate and if you did the first, you automatically did the second. I took the point further, and asked, “Of all the people that the bad objects were taken from, how many had hostile intent?” Again, no answer.

You see, we don’t screen for hostile intent! We don’t look for the bad guys. It’s almost as if we are fine with bad guys on our aircraft as long as they don’t have a weapon. Folks, with that philosophy, it’s only a matter of time until we have another major terrorist incident.

It’s not like we haven’t had some successes in thwarting terrorism and terrorist attacks. We’ve prevented some attacks that would have been pretty devastating, had they been successful. How have these victories been achieved? Well, they have usually been due to some very good intelligence and good old-fashioned police work. Many attacks have been stopped before they even got started by getting the bad guys while they were still in the planning stages. I would submit that this is where we need to focus more effort. Technology has its place, but it’s not the silver bullet.

Sometimes I shock my fellow airline pilots by saying that I am very happy to carry firearms on my aircraft. But it’s true. I am far more worried about a terrorist getting on my aircraft, even if he’s unarmed, than all the police officers and air marshals in the world who are carrying. It’s not the weapon that’s the problem. It’s the guy who controls it.

It’s time to find the bad guys. The little Dutch boy is running out of fingers.

Capt. Craig Hall is a senior Captain for a Canadian-based air carrier. He has been flying professionally for over twenty years. He is a recognized leader in the field of aviation security, and has been actively involved in aviation security issues for nearly two decades.