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Terrorists have become adept at working around airport security. Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Sinai crash offers lessons on weaknesses in Australian airport security

Russian investigators say they are now certain the crash of a passenger plane which killed 224 people in Egypt’s Sinai desert last month, was the result of a bomb.

While preliminary, the finding indicates the global airport security regime is going to face a new, disturbing scenario. Are Australian airports ready for this challenge?

Attack through the backdoor

Draconian airport security measures have been in place throughout the world ever since the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Yet, as often happens in crisis management, the measures were mainly reactive and took the form of harsher security restrictions. This was suitable for the threat represented by terrorists that, like Al-Qaeda, executed their actions in a scenario where frontal attacks were still possible.

But as head-on attacks become a less viable option for terrorists, they seek different ways to circumvent security measures. In most airports, trying to directly access the aircrafts through the landside area (that is, terminal and general public zones) has become almost impossible.

Instead, a more practical option would be to elude the security checkpoints in the airside area (such as ramp, parking bays, hangars, perimeter), where there may be higher vulnerability. Due to its extension, the airside area is more difficult to patrol. Modern airports are getting bigger and host an increasing number of aviation-related activities.

In this mix of frantic operations, it is not hard to imagine how malicious individuals may take advantage of a gate left open or a weakness in the external perimeter.

What about Australian airports?

My upcoming research (forthcoming publication) was conducted in three international airports in Australia. I interviewed 30 managers and officers involved in safety and security operations and assessed four potential components of organisational vulnerability in the airside area of airports.

First, operationally, the airside is almost a separate world, with its plethora of operators and ground handlers belonging to different organisations, frequently in competition. Security checks exist on paper, but their implementation on occasion may clash with a certain climate of complacency, as witnessed during the interviews:

What we’ve got here is you’ve got a culture in Australia, but – you know what? It’ll never happen here… Until we look at Sydney [Lindt siege], and even then it’s like, “Oh, we weren’t really tested,” so we got a real sort of lackadaisical.

Here, motivation of the security screeners is crucial and the airside security checkpoints, due to the isolated position and the low number of accesses, are often a boring business. Monotonous tasks and duties may push operators to lower their attention threshold: ID cards may not be checked, items screened or staff access points monitored.

Second, tactically, surveillance may not be adequate. Airport management is between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they must ensure efficiency and effectiveness, by avoiding impeding the hectic ground operators contracted by the airlines. On the other hand, they must guarantee safety and security, by applying the regulations. This dilemma may suggest airport management turn a blind eye on certain safety and security violations.

Third, strategically, some business models implemented in Australian airports may jeopardise the integrity of the aerodromes. The low cost philosophy imposes constant fine-tuning and reduces redundancy in safety and security systems. Several safety and security managers indicated that the number of passenger marshals staffed by certain airlines is not adequate, with one respondent commenting:

Again, it comes back to this low-cost mentality of cutting staff. They have woefully inadequate staff out there. There is very limited control over passenger movement.

Furthermore, economic pressure exerted on contractors and tougher turnaround times contribute in creating a more challenging organisational climate.

Airlines ride the wave of the competition among contractors and further employ sub-contractors, making supervision by airport management a more difficult task. Controls are watered down through the organisational layers.

Fourth, politically, international legislation needs to be harmonised. At the moment, a clear-cut global list of items prohibited on board aircrafts does not exist.

The 9/11 momentum produced a series of guidelines upon which the different countries have built their national legislation. But there is no legally binding international regulation covering airport security.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has always had a limited role, leaving the specific legislation to the different countries. Each country has therefore adopted their own regime, which also depends on their perceived threat level.

Airlines travelling to Australia impose different lists of prohibited items. Airport security legislation allows interpretation, which impacts on the performance of the security screeners.

Legislative and management weaknesses

Legislative and managerial weaknesses exist in Australian airports. There have been a number of significant aviation security events since 9/11, such as failed shoe bomb attempt in the 2001 on American Airlines Flight 63, the foiled 2006 plot to blow up several Transatlantic flights in 2006, and the 2009 case of the underwear bomber on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, whose explosives failed to go off.

These cases saw measures adopted such as Explosive Trace Detection tests (ETDs), Liquids, Aerosols and Gels restrictions (LAGs), and the implementation of full body scanners.

But these reactive measures have focused on protecting the landside. While Australia’s track record in aviation security is almost immaculate, much remains to be done.

An important vulnerability remains airport security regulations for general aviation, which are much more tolerant than regular public transport. This is particularly an issue when general aviation and regular public transport share the same infrastructures.

Lessons for the future

Globally, the current airport security regime is not enough to face terrorist groups that are more asymmetric than ever. Australia’s isolation may be a powerful shield against aviation threats. Yet, some of the organisational conditions, managerial practices and business models embraced in our airports may be vulnerable to backdoor attacks.

By leveraging economic or ideological pressure, modern terrorists may be able to access international aerodromes, by buying the silence and the complacency of insiders.

This scenario requires a joint international response, aimed at harmonising the international legislation, enhancing supervision on airline operations, imposing stringent criteria in the recruitment of contractors, performing random security checks on staff members, enforcing a joint safety and security climate and stressing results over bureaucratic compliance.

The Sinai air crash has resounded a clear warning bell. The current regime of airport security may not be adequate anymore in protecting us from enemies who may decide to use the backdoor to jeopardise global civil aviation.

This piece has been altered since publication. An example has been removed as it did not form part of the author’s research.

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