The chink in airports’ armor


Western countries are rushing to upgrade airport security to meet new threats, but African countries don’t have the money to even meet the old standards that Western airports now find inadequate, according to aviation analysts.

The answer, some say, is to screen passengers from developing countries with poor security much more thoroughly at transit airports.

The alleged attempt by Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a Detroit-bound airplane using explosives concealed in his underwear highlighted weaknesses in airport security. He boarded a plane in Lagos, Nigeria, and another at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, apparently carrying explosives and a detonator. Both airports failed to detect a bomb.

In the wake of the Christmas Day incident, the U.S. announced Sunday that passengers arriving from certain countries, including Nigeria, would face enhanced screening. And the operator of Schiphol Airport said it would buy 60 body scanners to boost security there.

Nigeria criticized as discriminatory the new policy, which subjects passengers from Yemen, Nigeria and other “countries of interest” to intensive screening, including full-body pat-downs, carry-on bag searches, body scanning and explosive-detection screening.

“It is unfair to discriminate against over 150 million people because of the behavior of one person,” said Information Minister Dora Akunyili.

Though some of the worst lapses, such as allowing spears or other potential weapons in carry-on luggage, seem no longer to occur, other aspects of airport security in Africa remain disquieting: the security official who barely glances at hand luggage, the bags lying in apparent chaos near a terminal building or the poor fencing on some airport perimeters.

Chris Yates, an aviation security analyst with Jane’s Information Group, said security procedures in parts of Central, East and West Africa were often lax.

“I’ve been through airports all over the region. In some airports in Africa, not South Africa or the north but in the middle belt, the security is carried out in a relatively perfuctionary way,” he said. “You’ll get a loose pat-down and a random search of bags, but that doesn’t necessarily cut it when you are looking at threats such as the one on Christmas Day.

“It’s absolutely obvious to everybody that [Abdulmutallab] took a bomb in a plane from Lagos to Schiphol,” he said, describing it as “a major failure in security at Lagos and a major failure in security at Schiphol.”

He said that until now, transit passengers normally faced a lower level of security. “I’d prefer to see, as a matter of course, full-body scanning of transit passengers, particularly from higher-risk regions of the world,” Yates said.

But U.S. aviation security analyst Douglas Laird said Abdulmutallab would have passed through almost any airport in the world because very few operate body scanners.

Laird has worked with aviation authorities in numerous African countries to help them improve security. He said most African nations could not afford even the computer scanning equipment used for examining checked bags in the U.S. He estimated the cost at $1.2 million for a scanner and $1.4 million for installation.

African airports meet international standards, he said, but they are less stringent than those in use in the U.S. and other Western countries. Security is monitored by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. agency that audits international airports every three years.

If airports in developing nations had to meet Western security standards, “they would ground all the airplanes, as simple as that,” Laird said. “So you have to be realistic.”

ICAO spokesman Denis Chagnon said the organization was in contact with the U.S. and other governments affected by the Abdulmutallab incident to discuss possible security improvements.

“We have to make sure that the security net is plugged up all over the world,” Chagnon said. “To a large extent, it’s up to individual countries to implement these measures in the way they feel is best to ensure the safety of flights, depending on the level of threat. The level of threat might not be the same in Latin America or Africa.”

Chagnon said African countries could pool resources on safety and security systems to help allay prohibitive costs.

Nigerian aviation security analyst Chris Aligbe said Nigeria had been working to improve security because it wanted to establish direct flights to the U.S. He said security lapses and corruption, which were common in the past, had all but disappeared.

The transit of Abdulmutallab through Lagos, allegedly with explosives, was not related to lax security staff or corruption, Aligbe said, but outdated security equipment. Security staff now are university graduates, he said.

“Before, you had people who did not have a degree,” he said. “During the last few years, a lot of things have changed.”