It wasn’t so long ago that the aviation security industry was complaining about a lack of access to consistent and reliable information. These days we know more about our passengers than ever before, and can stay abreast of events occurring anywhere in the world at all times. In fact, with the advent of ‘big data’, aviation security professionals need to be able to efficiently process and analyse seemingly endless quantities of information, which can be a daunting and often overwhelming challenge.
In the wake of a tragic event, particularly one in which lives were lost, we tell ourselves and each other “never again”; there will never be another MH17, another Metrojet, another Germanwings. Yet, when we step back and analyse the data, we are often surprised to discover that the flaws in our systems that allowed these events to happen had been identified long before the incidents occurred. Similar incidents may even have happened before and the lesson simply wasn’t learned the first time around.
Last year, following the terrorist attack on Brussels Airport, many experts were reminded that they had neglected to address known weaknesses in airport security; namely, there was no security check at the entrance of the departure and arrival hall. Three months later, there was another explosion at the check-in counters of Terminal 2 of Shanghai Pudong International Airport. Security weaknesses neglected in Brussels had also been neglected by Pudong.
“…we are often surprised to discover that the flaws in our systems that allowed these events to happen had been identified long before the incidents occurred…”
Sadly, examples of this type of attack go back even further: on 15 July 1983, a bomb was detonated at a Turkish Airlines check-in counter at Orly Airport in Paris. Although the event was the bloodiest attack in France for 20 years, it was launched by the anti-government group ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia) and no-one believed that an individual passenger could (or would) do the same thing again.
“…Ji Zhongxing, a wheelchair user, entered the arrival hall of Terminal 3 from the car park. He moved towards a crowd near international baggage reclaim and distributed leaflets to attract more people to him before detonating a homemade bomb…”
In fact, there have been increasing numbers of attacks carried out by lone wolves in areas preceding security checkpoints. On Independence Day of 2002, Hesham Mohamed Hadayet shot two Israelis at an El Al ticket counter in Los Angeles International. The security of the public areas was subsequently strengthened considerably, however this did not prevent another attack from happening in the same airport 11 years later.
On 1 November 2013, Paul Ciancia, aged 23, entered Terminal 3 of Los Angeles International after being dropped off by a roommate. He was carrying a bag containing a semiautomatic rifle. Ciancia shot TSA Officer Gerardo Hernandez 12 times at the security checkpoint, then entered the airside part of the terminal and was only stopped by police once he had reached the far end of the concourse and wounded seven other victims.
On 6 January 2017, lone wolf Esteban Santiago-Ruiz transported a semi-automatic pistol to Fort Lauderdale in his hold luggage, loaded it at baggage reclaim and shot a total of 11 people, killing five. Less than four years earlier, on 20 July 2013, an attack targeting Beijing International had already exposed the security vulnerability at arrival areas. Ji Zhongxing, a wheelchair user, entered the arrival hall of Terminal 3 from the car park. He moved towards a crowd near international baggage reclaim and distributed leaflets to attract more people to him before detonating a homemade bomb, wounding himself and four others.
Why do cases occur again and again in similar places, by similar means and with similar outcomes? If security weaknesses are repeatedly identified in areas where incidents occurred before, how can we believe that the existing security measures are effective? Of course, no security measures offer 100% protection from threats, but we still hope to avoid repeating lessons if we can help it.
In accordance with the existing coping strategy of ‘judging a matter on its merits’, it is only when a security vulnerability is identified that we address existing dangers and manage to block the loophole. When check-in counters were attacked, we moved security checkpoints to the entrance of departure lounges; when we were confronted with weapons at luggage claim, then weapons in luggage were subject to further restrictions (and paperwork). By only treating the head when the head aches and treating the foot when the foot hurts, we do little to prevent future destructive acts; we are not fundamentally resolving problems. The existing strategy, based on hindsight response, is far less effective than advance preparation based on data. Exact and effective pre-warning alerts rely on increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, image recognition, big data and cloud platforms, mobile terminals, etc. Therefore, the man who can effectively use mass intelligence data can implement effective aviation security.
“…by only treating the head when the head aches and treating the foot when the foot hurts, we do little to prevent future destructive acts…”
In terms of data analysis, the ideal security system would allow security personnel to identify an individual with negative intent from the moment they book online. When the individual arrives at the departure hall of the airport, he will be tracked in real time by video surveillance equipment. When he comes to a security checkpoint, he will receive the most thorough screening. When he boards the airplane, crewmembers will closely monitor him for any abnormal behaviour. It is only when the whole civil aviation security system is equipped with real-time positioning capabilities that they can accurately track suspicious personnel, terrorists or lone wolves, and leave them with no place to hide.
Xiaoyong Yang is Associate Dean, College of Civil Aviation Safety Engineering, Civil Aviation Flight University of China.