Not long ago two Northwest Airlines gate agents walked up a jet-way at the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton airport in Pennsylvania. They were preparing to close out a late-night DC-9 flight to Detroit.
Suddenly two men jumped out from around the corner, forced them onto the plane and announced that they were hijacking the flight.
Five-and-a-half hours later the ordeal was over. But it had all been staged by FBI agents as an exercise in terrorism and negotiation, part of a series of mock hijackings that the FBI has been conducting at airlines around the nation.
But that’s just the start. In the wake of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, airlines, airports and governments are moving quickly to implement new security measures and new detection and scanning devices.
Immediately after the Pan Am incident in December, the Federal Aviation Administration accelerated its order for six machines that can detect plastic explosives.
In Greece the government has stepped up its counterterrorist initiative. A special Greek Coast Guard unit has been assigned to protect cruise ships in the port of Piraeus, near Athens, and throughout the Greek islands. At the Athens airport all luggage is hand-searched, then sealed before check-in.
In Rome, airport officials no longer allow friends or relatives of passengers into the airport building. Airport officials in Paris are training a new army of explosive-sniffing dogs.
In the Middle East armed guards now fly on all Royal Jordanian flights. And in Cairo, after passengers check in their baggage the bags are lined up outside the plane on the tarmac. Then, before passengers are allowed to board the plane, they have to identify each of their bags before they are loaded onto the aircraft.
In France the civil aviation agency has announced funding for two advanced weapon-detection systems for checked baggage and cargo containers.
New ID Cards
In addition, the agency is issuing new identification cards with special magnetic information strips to all workers at French airports, at a cost of $17 million.
The new French scanner systems are designed to measure emissions from a source installed on the other side of a moving baggage track. A scanning of a large baggage container would take less than four minutes.
In the United States, American Airlines has ordered 19 X-ray scanning devices that are capable of detecting plastic explosives for use at all airports where American’s international flights originate or terminate.
These scanning units are able to distinguish between inorganic and organic materials and will display the items on color monitors. The systems should be in place and operational by April.
But some argue that the new technology designed to combat terrorists won’t go far enough.
“The real problem with airline security breaches as it now stands has little to do with new machines or equipment,” an airline security consultant said. “It’s the human factor--the quality of the people we hire to operate the machines and the training we give them.”
To be sure, most recorded breaches in security during surprise FAA inspections have occurred because personnel manning the equipment have missed weapons, bombs and other devices intentionally packed in bags by security officials.
The FAA is seeking detectors that require little human judgment to find explosives.
One system, Thermal Neutron Activation, acts almost independent of human judgment and doesn’t require a security employee to interpret what is flashed on a screen. Instead, it bombards luggage with low-energy neutrons in a detection chamber. If explosives are detected, the baggage is automatically diverted.
Another system was tested recently on passengers at Boston’s Logan International Airport. This machine moves warm air around passengers as they enter a chamber. After that passenger leaves, an immediate chemical analysis is performed on the air sample, looking for the telltale chemical signatures of dynamite, plastic and TNT.
Other machines are being designed to stop terrorism before the airplane gate. It is estimated that 90% of aviation terrorism involves the use of false passports. The new machines are working with high-technology identity documents.
But we may have to wait as long as three years for these machines to be installed at high-risk airports.
The U.S. systems ordered by the FAA may not be in place until the end of this year.
And the French weapon detection systems won’t be in place until a year from now, and won’t be fully operational until later next year. In addition, the systems are only useful in detecting weapons or guns, not explosives.
“All of this will undoubtedly help in reducing the potential for disaster,” says one airline security chief. “But we’re still dealing with countries and terrorist organizations that will try to beat the system no matter what we do.”
For example, some U.S. airline security experts say that Libya has developed ways to disguise plastic explosives, molding the material into the shapes of hair dryers, calculators and other items typically found in passenger bags.
“Given the sheer volume of bags checked in by passengers,” one head of airline security said, “the odds of these devices getting past us is still good.”
Unfortunately, the technology gap between airline security officials and the terrorists they try to stop is still wide.
Still, effective security steps are being taken by some airlines. Some of these new airport and airline security measures have already been implemented but most are not readily apparent to passengers. With few exceptions, most of these steps do not force long passenger delays at airports.
For example, in the wake of the furor over Salman Rushdie’s novel “The Satanic Verses,” British Airways has taken steps to protect its planes, passengers and personnel.
British Airways Flight 20, between Hong Kong and London, makes a refueling stop en route in Bombay. Until recently, passengers who had boarded in Hong Kong were allowed to remain on board during the late-night stopover.
Now they are required to leave the aircraft. Authorities then board during refueling and thoroughly search the passenger cabin.
Then, when passengers reboard, a head count is made and matched against the number of bags each passenger has checked through to London.
On one recent flight, after new and transit passengers had boarded Flight 20 for the leg to London, the plane was delayed about an hour. The head count of passengers did not match the number of tickets collected.
Finally it was discovered that ground agents had forgotten to take one passenger’s ticket when he boarded. The numbers matched and the plane was sent on its almost 11-hour all-night journey to Heathrow.
The pilot explained the problem, the resulting snafu and its ultimate resolution to the passengers. Not one passenger complained.