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The X-Ray Factor

Posted 7 February 2011 · Add Comment

Ian Sheppard looks at the new regulations that add security to the challenge for airliners.

The event that still forms the backdrop to the aviation security topic is the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie on December 21 1988. Since then X-ray examination has become the norm.

Detection of explosives, being non-metallic, depends on distinguishing devices from other electronic items – i.e. the operatives are the key to detection.

Following 9/11 there was a push to harmonise security rules and to have ‘one-stop security’ so as not to disrupt journeys more than necessary (for both passengers and cargo). However, the move to harmonisation has failed partly because each new threat that has emerged has led to a knee-jerk reaction where measures were introduced aimed squarely at preventing a repeat of each particular threat.

Examples include the printer cartridges incident of October 2010, the December 25 2009 failed bombing by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab using liquids concealed in underwear (see box), previous incidents involving liquids, aerosols and gels (LAGs) and going right back to shoe bomber Richard Reid in 2002.

Such events have created pressure to develop better screening techniques. For example, with X-ray devices, the rays can be analysed as they ‘back-scatter’ using sophisticated software to identify suspicious materials. Tomography has also been developed from medical CAT scanner technology so that operators can rotate 3D images to better examine suspicious objects.

  • International law

ICAO Annex 17 (to the Chicago Convention) covers security and dates from the 1970s and the establishment of an international security manual.

The prevention of unlawful acts against civil aviation was already covered by the Tokyo and Hague conventions but only with the advent of the 1971 Montreal Convention were unlawful acts by those not travelling on the aircraft covered. This convention introduced the definition of an aircraft ‘in service’ with one of the offences being the placing of a potentially harmful device or substance on board prior to a flight.

However, the conventions are still seen by some as of limited use.

In 2002 ICAO member states issued a global strategy for strengthening aviation security around the world. However, despite a well-meaning plan of action, a review in 2005-8 showed many holes in legal coverage – for example the use of aircraft as weapons, and suicide attacks, with a particular weakness being laws dealing with those financing, organising and directing terrorist activity.

Ultimately this led in August/September this year to the adoption at a Beijing diplomatic conference of two new legal instruments: The Convention on the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Relating to International Civil Aviation; and the Protocol Supplementary to the convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft.

At last using civil aircraft as weapons and organisers of attacks have no safe haven. When the Beijing Convention 2010 comes into force it will replace the Montreal Convention and Protocol.

ICAO has also recently adopted two conventions covering compensation – these are generally known as the ‘General Risks Convention’ and the ‘Unlawful Interference Convention’.

The former establishes strict liability for damage caused by aircraft – and this liability is limited (to values based on aircraft take-off weight) if the damage was due to the negligence or wrongful act of a third party.

In June the Middle East Regional Aviation Security Committee issued the ‘Abu Dhabi Joint Declaration’ to set out key principles and standards, while ICAO member states in the region agreed to increase co-operation and co-ordination.

In future, united efforts should ensure that states meet international obligations set out by ICAO. This will also include better training and measures to make travel documents more secure.

Generally they agreed to establish technical forums to assess new technologies, develop enhanced detection methods, unifying and harmonising laws and regulations and encouraging/funding the rectification of defects highlighted by ICAO audits of states.

While some way behind the European Union, the Middle East is at least showing signs of taking the same co-ordinated approach. The region is likely to look to the EU as an example of how states should work together.

In April, EU Regulation 300//2008 came into force in the EU (and some ECAC states that are not members of the EU) and the states will soon incorporate this into their national laws. They must also amend their national aviation security programmes (NASPs) to reflect the changes. Regulation 300/2008 has to be observed by all carriers operating to EU airports and also by all those providing services in aviation security.

However, this standard is referred to as ‘base line’ in the expectation that countries with higher threat levels will require ‘more stringent measures’ (or MSMs) – for example the body scanners now being installed at numerous airports (both inside and outside the EU and US).

One problem for airlines is that they may not be aware of MSMs (as publicising them will also let terrorists know about them). The EC informs states about them and it is up to states to find secure channels to inform the aviation community. However, because they do not always do this, airlines are well advised to contact the relevant security authorities before operating a particular route so that they can plan and train staff.

Another issue is that regulators are running ahead of technology to some extent – for example, expecting a higher level of scanner technology to be implemented than is practical given the false alarm rates and through-put times. The EC wants liquid detectors to be widespread by 2013 but manufacturers are indicating that the technology will not be practical that soon.

In March, a draft European directive on security funding was amended to make it the responsibility of governments to fund measures such as body scanners, because protecting EU citizens from acts of terrorism is a state responsibility, and shouldn’t be left to industry.

While in the EU a body scanner impact assessment is out soon, the devices have become hugely controversial due to privacy concerns. Companies like Rapiscan and Smiths Detection are developing their scanners – the latter has ‘Eqo’ scanners at London’s Heathrow and Gatwick Airports. Devices which show less revealing images could soon show a standardised body with any potential threats superimposed.

Smiths also has a new machine which is good enough to mean passengers will not need to remove laptops from hand baggage any more. The US TSA has ordered this (the HiScan 6040aTiX) for deployment across the US.

It is US government funding and increasing competition in the growing security market that is making devices more advanced and more numerous.

Meanwhile, codes of conduct have been developed to help train operatives and reassure passengers.


  • Interpol

Interpol is at the centre of efforts to share intelligence. It created a ‘fusion task force’ after 9/11 to identify terrorist groups, share information (it maintains a terrorist database) and provide support to states.

It issues ‘orange notices’, for example, to warn of potential threats – following the printer cartridges incident this year FSF, which has six regional task forces including Project Middle East, issued an ‘orange notice’ security alert to Interpol’s 188 member countries.

In December the Council of the European Union announced the creation of Airpol, to further enhance ties between police forces and border forces.

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