Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Airport Security: Air Travel Safety’s Weakest Link?

With the failed Christmas Day 2009 terror attack almost becoming as tragic as 9 / 11, is our overly intrusive – but woefully inadequate airport security – the weakest link in the air travel safety chain?

By: Ringo Bones

December 25, 2009 would have been a very tragic if a young radicalized Al-Qaeda recruit managed to replicate the Lockerbie terror attack. Fortunately, the improvised airport security evading explosive device carried by the would-be suicide bomber failed to explode. Making the 23 year old Nigerian named Omar Farouk Abdul Mutallab to top the notoriety list when 2009 draws to a close. But the averted tragedy does raise the question whether our overly intrusive from a Civil Liberties standpoint – but woefully inadequate – airport passenger screening and security procedures need to be upgraded?

Technological solutions only solve some of the aspects of the still evolving menace of global terrorism. Those newfangled X-Ray back-scatter based and millimeter wave technology explosive detection and scanners whose working prototypes became operational around 1999 to 2000 are still so controversial because they can outline with almost photographic fidelity the bodies of the subjects they are examining. By making their intimate details clearly visible on the display screen as if the scanned subjects were naked. The EU had been unanimous in deferring their use in major European airports even after the 9 / 11 terror attacks due to their overt intrusiveness. Major airports under the jurisdiction of Number 10 Downing Street have now resorted in using these overtly intrusive scanners in an effort to bolster airport security.

These newfangled devices’ ability to detect PETN-based explosive devices – like the one used in the failed Christmas Day attack - are just about within the limits of these security scanners operational effectiveness. So a terrorist using such bombs still has a possibility of slipping through such newfangled security scanners. Our design paradigm for weapons detection has always been aimed at detecting ferromagnetic material based weapons systems – not the ambient chemical residues of nitrate based explosives. Sadder still, bomb sniffing dogs can't verbally alert their handlers that they have a cold or coming down with something and full body pat downs are just too over-the-top intrusive to some people's sensibilities when it comes to Civil Liberty issues.

Sadly, most of us - including the powers that be - are just treating the symptoms, not the cause, of global terrorism. Even though the averted tragedy of the failed Christmas Day terror attack was eventually blamed – yet again – to the various intelligence agencies failure to coordinate and communicate in their operations, the incident will very likely won’t be the last. Other threats to the safely of air travel – like bird strikes and poor aircraft maintenance – will again be deprived of the much needed R & D funding. Overtly intrusive and Civil Liberties violating methods of scanning our own person and personal belongings in airports are now the lucrative draw of research and development money. Lets just hope that all of our airline pilots are as good as Captain Chesley Sullenberger in averting the worst effects of a bird strike incident.

1 comment:

  1. The failure of the Christmas Day underwear bomber was probably due to the failure PETN based explosive to achieve high-level detonation. Though explosive expert Dr. Sidney Alford has yet to be interviewed about his views / theories on why this Christmas Day terror attack was a "very fortunate failure". Maybe the Nigerian born bomber didn't use a legitimate detonator / blasting cap because such things are easy to detect via conventional metal detectors.