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After the Sinai Crash – Transparency, Oversight and Passenger Empowerment

November 11, 2015

Sinai

Two days after the Metrojet crash in Sinai, I took a flight from Jeddah to London on British Airways. At the airport I and the other passengers were subjected to the third degree. Body search, hand baggage gone through with a fine tooth comb. Two laptops, one IPad and two phones switched on and off to prove that they were really what they appeared to be.

It was a good job that the flight was half empty, because otherwise we would have been standing in the line for many hours. When we finally boarded the aircraft, I asked the steward whether we would be flying over Sinai. “Yes sir”, he said. “But don’t worry, we’ll be well beyond the reach of any surface-to-air missile.”

I didn’t want to get into a discussion about the range of the BUK missile that shot down MH17 over Ukraine, so left it at that and took my seat. And actually, I wasn’t asking the question he so reassuringly answered.  I just wanted to know whether I should be more prepared than normal to meet my maker within the following hour or two.

After all there are many factors that bring down aircraft. Bombs and missiles are relative rarities. There are also lots of targets, and not so many people willing to go for them. So it’s really a matter of calculating the odds and taking a view. And since I’m writing this from the comfort of my home in England, the view turned out to be correct.

And so it seems that what brought down the Russian airliner was a bomb, not a missile. Which I guess justifies deploying a couple of guys rifling through hand baggage at an airport in a country where a recent poll revealed widespread sympathy for the aims of the suspected perpetrator of the atrocity, ISIS.

Well yes, sort of. But whenever I encounter this belts and braces approach – note that we had already been through the X-ray scanner – I wonder where the distrust lies: with the people looking at the images from the scanner or with the technology itself? This shouldn’t be taken as a criticism of the Saudis. As will be evident later, they did exactly what they were supposed to by international convention in response a perceived high security risk.

Nevertheless, I have been through enough scanners to know that the attention of the operators can wander. In my experience this happens more often in Middle East airports, something that travellers at Sharm el-Sheikh have reported. But I suspect that’s only because I use more airports in the region than, say, in continental Europe or Africa.

So if one of the security vulnerabilities is down to the scanner operators, what’s to be done? More frequent breaks? Better training? More supervision? Probably all of these things. Yet none of those measures would prevent an operator sympathetic to the cause of would-be bombers from turning a blind eye to something sinister passing through the machine. More thorough – and regular – background screening might just reveal the sympathies of the operator, but what if that person was under duress? A threat to their family in the event of non-cooperation for example. No screening system is likely to pick up on that.

That’s where a technology fix could help. An audible alarm incapable of being overridden by the operator that is set off if the machine sees something suspicious. A similar alarm sounds if you go through the metal detector with a coin in your pocket. In the case of the X-ray scanner an alarm system would mean that the bomber would need two accomplices, not one, to get something through, a far less likely event unless the entire security system was hopelessly compromised.

If such an alarm triggered more bag checks at the scanner, then surely the argument for double checking would be weakened. The last thing travellers and the airline industry needs is for repeated  searching of hand baggage to be mandatory on every flight.

Checking hand baggage is only part of the problem. Extra checks may serve to reassure and annoy passengers in equal measures, but then there’s the question of baggage stowed in the hold, and the possibility that a baggage handler might smuggle a bomb on to the plane. Checks on stowed bags take place out of sight of the passenger, so unless they also go through the scanner in the presence of the owner, the traveller usually forgets about them until they arrive at the baggage hall at the other end. The Israelis use barometric chambers to detect devices designed to detonate during flight at lower air pressures. No doubt there will be people pushing for blast-proof baggage containers to be introduced, at least in areas seen to be most at risk. And of course more body searches and screening of staff.

What’s pretty sure is that there will be consequences as the result of the Sinai crash. Governments are already making noises about tightened security. Almost certainly those measures will include improved technology – for those airports that can afford it – and new processes. Equally likely will be that waiting times at airports will increase.

From the passengers’ point of view, frustration will increase. Right now, in most airports around the world (Israel being a notable exception), the same security measures theoretically apply to each passenger regardless of age, nationality, ethnic origin and other factors that might feed into an assessment of the risk that person potentially poses to airport and flight safety. In practice? Who knows?

There has long been an argument for pre-screening measures based on risk assessment. Without the resources of intelligence agencies such as  the NSA and GCHQ, looking into a person’s background before they arrive at the airport will always be an inexact science – a matter of risk percentage. But if pre-screening makes life easier for a large number of passengers who, according to objective measures, are highly unlikely to feature on any no-fly list, then for the vast majority of passengers the pain will be alleviated.

The question is: who does the screening and what measures will they use? At the moment, it depends on the country. If you fly to the USA, those from countries that qualify for the visa waiver have to apply for the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorisation). You are never going to know what criteria the US uses to determine whether an ESTA can be granted, but my experience after 9/11 leads me to hope that the system is more sophisticated today.

At that time my passport was full of stamps from Middle East countries, and I found myself being targeted for “special measures” every time I arrived at and left the country. Was there a connection? I’ll never know, but in all other respects as a married middle-aged Englishman with no political or religious affiliations I would surely have ranked pretty low down the list of potential terrorists. I even co-owned a business in the US, for goodness sake!

And then there was the Saudi friend once told me that shortly after 9/11, he was interrogated by the FBI and put under surveillance, seemingly because he shared a name with one of the 19 attackers. He and about a million other people in the Kingdom! Not very smart, you might think.

There is one issue that doesn’t seem to have received much airtime of late. Why is it so difficult to find information from official sources about the safety and security of the airports we must use to travel from one place to another? Why, for example, did it only emerge after the Sinai crash that a couple of months a British airliner full of passengers had to dodge a missile that flew 300 metres past it on approach to Sharm El-Sheikh? The British government explained that “we investigated the reported incident at the time and concluded that it was not a targeted attack and was likely to be connected to routine exercises being conducted by the Egyptian military in the area at the time.” Well that’s OK then. Nothing to do with ISIS, just some trigger-happy army unit letting off missiles for fun. Clearly our masters don’t believe that we need to be told about such incidents. An entirely routine potentially catastrophic near-miss. Happens all the time, does it?

So where can we go to find out whether en route to our place in the sun we are at risk of having to engage in a pas-de-deux with an incoming projectile? Or indeed whether the airport we’re heading towards has security staff who prefer to send messages on WhatsApp rather than keep their eyes on what’s passing across their scanner screens? If our governments won’t tell us, who will?

Now in no sense am I a safety expert, but from a motive of self-preservation, I do take a keen interest in the subject. In the dim and distant past I actually worked in civil aviation for a number of years. That experience led me to a very obvious place to see if I could find an authoritative source of information on airports. Take a look at this interesting document produced by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). It’s called a “Manual on Threat Assessment and Risk Management Methodology (Reference Guide for States)”.

The publisher, ICAO, is a UN-affiliated body. According to its website, ICAO “works with the (Chicago) Convention’s 191 Member States and industry groups to reach consensus on international civil aviation Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) and policies in support of a safe, efficient, secure, economically sustainable and environmentally responsible civil aviation sector.”  One of its key functions is that it “audits States’ civil aviation oversight capabilities in the areas of safety and security.”

The organisation runs a campaign called No Country Left Behind (NCLB) that aims to ensure that members rich or poor are able to implement the standards to a uniform level. One of those standards, of course, relates to safety and security. Hence the The Threat Assessment and Risk Management manual, which shows that at an international level there is a coherent and sensible approach to ensuring the safety of airports. The website goes on to say that “The NCLB effort also promotes ICAO’s efforts to resolve Significant Safety Concerns (SSCs) brought to light through ICAO’s safety oversight audits as well as other safety, security and emissions-related objectives.”

In other words, when there are safety issues, it attempts to resolve them, and carries out audits to ensure compliance.

But are all the member states following the guidelines? Based on a couple of hours browsing the ICAO website I wasn’t any the wiser on that question.

Wading through the acres of acronym-strewn information on the site, in layman’s terms the following is apparent:

  • All member states are supposed to adhere to the guidelines in the Threat Assessment and Risk Methodology
  • ICAO audits member nations in order to identify and help members resolve Significant Safety Concerns.
  • The audit can include on-site inspections.
  • Most member nations have agreed to make public information on Significant Safety Concerns

Unfortunately I was unable to find information on Significant Safety Concerns relating to individual countries on the website, but no doubt it exists somewhere. The closest I got to what I was looking for was this annual safety report on European member nations. Though it provided plenty of country ratings, none related to individual airports. Which leads me to the next question: why is there no publicly available worldwide ranking of airports based on an objective assessment of the safety risk of travelling to, from and through them?

My reason for asking that question is that it would be extremely helpful if  we the customers – the flying passengers – were able to make our assessment of the risk of using one airport or another. It would also be useful if we were able to be sure that such rankings are based on frequent, impartial, hands-on inspections that are beyond the ability of airport owners and operators to manipulate and obstruct for their own reasons. In other words, no possibility of cover-ups of issues of which the passenger should be aware. In addition to current risks, it would be useful if those rankings were based on historical safety and security track records, and objective measures of political stability.

Difficult to do? Too sensitive for the member states? Too dependent on secret squirrels? Don’t care. It’s about time passengers had the opportunity to make their own minds up about whether they’re prepared to travel to an airport with low safety and security standards, and for the information that they use to make that decision to be objective, credible and easily accessible.

Individual states have too much riding on the outcomes from safety incidents to be left to make their own risk assessments without some element of external mediation. Look at poor Egypt, faced with the loss of 70% of its tourist industry according to one observer. Is it likely to face its problems fair and square and fix them, with international assistance if need be? One would like to think so. Would it be more likely to do so if it was unable to varnish the risks? Highly likely.

That external mediation is what ICAO is supposed to deliver. It may be doing so, but not in a manner easily accessible to this layman.

It’s also a factor that the safety of a particular airport is not the only consideration. The airport is merely the point of arrival or departure. What happens in the air is equally important. So travellers should become aware of the routes being taken to the destination, which was why I asked whether the flight from Jeddah was crossing Sinai.

The bottom line is that as passengers we should not blindly accept what we’re told about the safety of a particular airport, aircraft, airline or air route. We owe it to ourselves to arm ourselves with as much information as we can that might have a bearing on our decision about how we travel and where we travel. Just as it’s relatively easy to find out where malaria and dengue fever are prevalent, and in which country there is a significant risk of terrorism, it should also be easy to access information about aviation safety. We should be able to do that without having to spend many hours on the web dredging up dodgy information or watching endless episodes of Air Crash Investigation.

I personally believe that ICAO and individual member states could do much more to reassure us (or otherwise) that we’re going to a safe place. No-notice security spot-checks, mystery customer programmes and even a place where passengers can easily report incidents and poor practice that they notice while going through an airport or flying would, if publicly accessible, go a long way towards repairing the damage caused to confidence in air travel by high-profile security failures.

The counter-argument will be that if information on security weaknesses was made available to the public, would-be terrorists would gleefully leap in to exploit the open doors. Well yes, they probably would, but don’t you think that airports and countries named and shamed would have a very good incentive to act pretty quickly to resolve the issues?

Air safety has improved significantly over the past decade, which is why crashes when they occur are all the more shocking and extensively reported. But there’s no such thing as perfection, as the Sinai incident showed. More, much more, can surely be done. Yes, I know there are thousands of airports used by over a hundred thousand flights on any given day worldwide, so to apply more rigorous inspection, new procedures, enhanced technologies and more thorough training consistently across all airports will cost money.

But since many national economies, including that of Egypt, depend on air travel, in the future we will have to balance the risk of not investing further in safety and security against the risk of  collapsing economies and ultimately failed states, with all the knock-on consequences.

I grieve for Egypt, and for Tunisia, whose tourism industry has been so badly damaged by the attacks in Tunis and Sousse. Also for the families who were snuffed out over Sinai. It’s time for some smart solutions to keep our travel safe, not just more of the same – yet more layers of inspection for the benighted passenger to endure.

2 Comments
  1. Doug Langmead permalink

    Steve,

    Your website is still blocked in the UAE. Can you include a pdf copy of the articles in your mailouts?

    Cheers,

    Doug

    • Very strange. My stats show that four people visited from the UAE today. Would you mind asking someone else to try and access the site. I’m wondering if you might have a problem with your firewall. Certainly I can think of no reason why the UAE might block the site. I’m usually pretty nice to them!

      S

      Sent from my iPad

      >

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