Airport security: Dealing with human lapses

ANYONE who remembered the incident of the Nigerian “underpants” bomber trying to ignite an explosive device aboard a Northwest Airlines flight as it was preparing to land in Detroit on Christmas Day last year would shake his head reading about the suspected Times Square bomber attempting to escape out of the country aboard an Emirates flight. The second incident happened barely six months after.

Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s name appeared in the US database of suspected terrorism yet he was not subject to more stringent security screening. And Emirates failed to act on an electronic message to check the no-fly list for Pakistan-born Faisal Shahzad’s name that had been added.

While it was fortunate that Shahzad was stopped before he could fly off, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg summed up the incident most succinctly: “Clearly the guy was on the plane and shouldn’t have been. We got lucky.”

 How often can one rely on luck?

 Procedures are only as good as they are acted upon.

Apparently, previously the requirement was for airlines to check “no fly” lists within 24 hours. Emirates might have had done its due diligence, but it failed to react to a change in the requirement when a new name was later added.

Now airlines are required to check “no fly” lists within two hours of receiving new information. There is still the odd chance of a name being missed if the check is not executed up till close-out time. Airlines know that stringent implementation may mean flight delays and other problems, but the bigger issue is whether we should take that risk.

It is a stitch in time that saves nine. But it would be naïve to think that we will always have time on our side.

As a further measure to tighten the procedure, the Transportation Security Administration has decided to take over the job of checking passenger manifests for international flights against “no fly” lists by the end of the year. That assumes the Administration will do a better job and it is less likely that expedience will come into play.

But there is still the issue of human lapses, and we do not want to console ourselves all too frequently that to err is only human.

That inevitably raises yet again the quality issue of airport security staff. To prove the point, local journalists have successfully smuggled dangerous items such as knives, syringes, screwdrivers and razors onto domestic flights in South Africa in the run-up to the World Cup.

There also appears to be different standards across the globe on the items that may be permitted on board. This not only frustrates bona fide travelers but also poses cross-border security problems.

Even with full-body scanners that some countries have introduced, we have to contend with possible human lapses.

No matter that opinion differs on their effectiveness.

Israeli security expert Rafi Sela called them a waste of million of dollars (“That’s why we haven’t put them in our airport”), boasting that he could easily slip through one of them with enough explosives to blow up a jumbo jet. Political scientist Mark Salter at the University of Ottawa in Canada disagreed, calling the machines a “genuine leap forward” and a “much better mouse trap.”

Like all other machines and devices, they are as good as their handlers. This aspect has often been overlooked or paid scant attention.


About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

One Response to Airport security: Dealing with human lapses

  1. steve999 says:

    Until they figure out how to eliminate screeners from body scanners, people should be fully aware of the images:

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