Airport alert: Effective aviation security depends on keeping the public in the know

The good thing about sounding an alert at three Indian airports (Chennai, Mumbai and Hyderabad) following specific inputs that something sinister was afoot, is in telling the public about it. This is a positive development, one that deserves commendation. The more the public knows, the higher is the safety factor; people become more cooperative if they are kept in the loop.

It's the hush-hush secrecy and the leaking of little dribs and drabs of conjecture that cause more panic, confusion and knee-jerk reactions. Transparency is the key because the more amplified the awareness the more difficult for terrorists to perform their dirty deeds.

Representational image. AP

Going public also stymies the VIP culture, because the public becomes less tolerant of the pompous self-inflated egotists and the carping critics who mess up security procedures at airports. By feeling part of the solution, people display more patience themselves.

Having said that, however, no number of sweeps or checks can create failsafe. They can be a contributory deterrent, but they cannot deter by themselves.

We have to remember that the visual image of the terrorist from the '70s when hijackings were in vogue is no longer valid. He is not the scruffy, cloth around his head and straggly bearded peasant screaming invective and waving an AK-47.

By that token, just like every suicide bomber and gun-toting rebel has figured out, there is no need for major logistics — simply use what is available. The most shocking example of this is reflected in the series of incidents involving terrorists mowing down people with vehicles. What can anyone do to stop that? Consequently, the man in the seat next to you could be as far removed in image as you are.

Aviation, by its very nature, is vulnerable because it flies from high grade security areas to weak and ineffectually manned airports to those that do not even merit attention. As such, commandeering aircraft is not a very major exercise for anyone desperate enough to do it if he or she has no regard for the consequences.

The strongest resistance, therefore, comes from sharing of real-time intelligence. If more nations exchange data on suspects and give each other dossiers on people of interest without worrying about frontiers and politics, aviation will be safer. Tracking of individuals and profiling them at various points, distillation of chatter from social media platforms and mobile phones, will all be weapons to be used in this ongoing effort to make the skies safer.

Contrary to popular belief, this is not so much an IATA initiative since IATA is more of a clearing house than an executive body. Although it has taken up causes like noise abatement procedures at Heathrow, power plant emissions, and can bring valuable support to the table, the matter of security is more to do with international police and intelligence agencies, especially those dealing with terror groups.

With the help of ICAO who have seized this issue for the past 40 years, air safety has improved its methods exponentially but so have its adversaries.

The official approach to airport security calls for security, passenger pre-screening, checkpoint screening of passengers and carry-on baggage, checked bag screening, and aircraft and onboard security. As things stand, one in three passengers does undergo secondary checks and is measured for profile. Between psychologists, behavior patterns and the use of databases a passenger, though unaware, might be tracked from the moment he enters a terminal.

A great deal can be done especially with the weakest links in the airport network. The vital flow of information would come from airlines themselves since they have the best database. However, airlines are reluctant to give out passenger profiles since they see it as a breach of faith and still balk at the idea. Unless there is higher cooperation and sharing of information between carriers and police and security forces, this shortfall will stay the Achilles' heel for global aviation.

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Updated Date: Apr 17, 2017 14:01:21 IST

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