The agenda was short but pressing. In a boardroom on the fourth floor of its headquarters on Montreal’s Sherbrooke Street, members of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) sat down last week at an emergency meeting to review security standards at airports around the globe.
But one case history—the June 23 AirIndia disaster—threw a dark shadow over the entire proceedings. Despite the extra security precautions imposed on Canadian airports after the Air-India crash and the explosion in a suitcase from a CP Air flight that had landed in
Tokyo the same day, ICAO’s top-level delegates—including Canadian Transport Minister Don Mazankowski and U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole—shared a mounting fear: no country can now be considered immune to terrorism. Declared Rodney Wallis, director of security for the International Air Transport Association (IATA): “Civil aviation is under siege.” Vulnerability: Indeed, the growing probability that bombs caused both the CP Air explosion and Air-India’s plunge raised grave questions about the vulner-
I ability of Canadian airport security systems. Most of the methods and equipment currently in use were introduced in the 1970s to deal with lone gunmen
commandeering aircraft—the so-called “Take me to Cuba” syndrome. With only some exceptions—including Israel’s, El AÍ—the airlines have not X-rayed checked luggage on the theory that a zealot with a cause would not want to blow up the plane on which he was flying. But that theory is endangered after the Air-India and CP Air disasters. And because Canada has never consid-
ered itself a target for terrorists, security procedures do not match the stringent controls at many of the world’s other airports. Said Duane Freer, director of ICAO’s Air Navigation Bureau: “Canada’s situation is like firemen who work at a station where there is never a fire to fight. After a while, you get rusty and maybe a bit careless.”
In the wake of the disaster, security experts pointed out that the quality of detection equipment is only one element of an efficient system. Alertness and vigilance by the equipment’s operators are equally important. Although metal detectors can be adjusted to spot the presence of paper clips and zippers when scanning passengers, machine operators often lower the sensor level to avoid long delays in the boarding process. In one incident last week a young male passenger boarded a CP Air aircraft at Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport carrying a camping knife. The passenger willingly surrendered
the knife to Capt. John Milette; the knife later passed through the system repeatedly without detection in tests.
Moreover, machine operators may not examine all X-rayed luggage closely as it goes through the machine. Critics charge that private guards who operate the security equipment in airports are poorly trained and frequently become bored by the work after a few hours.
Said Prof. David Charters, deputy director of the Centre for Conflict Studies at the University of New Brunswick: “We have a relaxed approach to security compared to the United States, the United Kingdom, France and West Germany, who have been more affected by terrorist acts.”
Peril: But security investigators cite other factors contributing to the new peril in the skies. In Canadian international airports, terminal and airline employees must wear laminated color-coded badges with their photographs. In addition, they are granted access to restricted areas only through special doors that must be opened with the aid of an electronically coded card. But airline employees complain that many of their co-workers treat their passes too casually. Said one official in Toronto: “I have seen these passes lying on car dashboards or hanging from rear-view mirrors. Once you get a pass, you can go almost anywhere.” IATA specialists,
I^vho are studying the June 14 hijacking by Shi’ite Moslems of a TWA flight from Athens to Rome, also suggest that bribing of airport personnel and weak security around the tarmac enable terrorists to enter restricted areas.
Temporary: Since last week’s twin tragedies, Canadian officials have moved swiftly to implement more restrictive —perhaps temporary—regulations. Transport Canada will buy, rent and borrow 20 new X-ray machines at a cost of $3.4 million to ensure that all baggage is properly screened before being loaded onto planes. And nonperishable cargo is subjected to a 24-hour quarantine. As well, Mazankowski proposed the development of a “last-point detection system” that would scan luggage as it is loaded into the fuselage of every plane. The system would be designed to prevent tampering with suitcases between check-in and loading. It could also prevent bombs or weapons from being transferred in luggage from connecting domestic flights, for which security is often looser.
Despite last week’s lapses, officials are confident that Canada meets international standards, which are set out in ICAO’s top-secret Airport Security Manual. However, other nations apply the manual’s stringent measures unevenly and in some cases seem to ignore them altogether. In fact, many Middle Eastern airports have become notorious for lax security and dangerous for travellers. In the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Westerners are sometimes arbitrarily detained and harassed by airport officials themselves. Beirut’s chaotic and bullet-riddled international airport is surrounded by warring rival militias and hijackings are frequent. Aviation experts have said that Athens International Airport has the world’s worst security. U.S. officials charged that negligence in Athens allegedly contributed to the TWA hijacking and prompted Washington to issue a travel warning to American tourists using the airport.
Extreme: By contrast, Eastern Europe’s closely watched planes are protected by physical searches of both passengers and luggage—often to prevent the smuggling of “subversive” materials or currency. Security is equally tight in most West European terminals, where there has been a history of terrorist violence in airplanes and airports. “They all use the same equipment,” explains Eric Jackson, chief of the Association of European Airlines. “The only difference comes with security philosophy, layout of the airport and staff levels of alertness.”
At London’s Heathrow Airport,
! agents responsible for monitoring the surveillance of hand-held luggage are rotated every 20 minutes to ensure con! stant vigilance. In Frankfurt travellers j are often asked to open briefcases after
they have been X-rayed. But even such strict measures are not infallible. Two weeks ago a powerful bomb ripped through the Frankfurt terminal, killing three people. In addition, checked luggage is not always X-rayed. Said Bert
Ratlin, an American airline representative in Brussels: “It simply isn’t practical to X-ray every bag when, as at Frankfurt Airport, you can get 10,000 bags an hour moving in a peak period. The passenger would stand it for a day
or two when bombs are on his mind, but not for any longer.”
Occasionally, airports and airlines are forced to resort to extreme measures to counter the terrorist threat. After the hijacking of a Pakistani jet in 1981, an armed guard rode shotgun on a subsequent Pakistani flight to ensure that
passengers remained seated. During the early 1970s armed sky marshals were assigned to U.S. flights deemed vulnerable to hijackers. The deterrent worked so well that it went out of fashion, but last week U.S. officials were considering reintroducing the precaution.
Task: As a matter of routine, El AÍ assigns armed security agents to travel on its most sensitive routes. At Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, security personnel examine the contents of passengers’ bags with meticulous care. The airline also maintains special security checks at foreign airports from which El AÍ operates. New Tokyo International Airport (Narita) functions like an armed camp, with more than 1,500 policemen and 400 private guards on duty. Their task: to prevent violent attacks by left-wing extremists who sympathize with farmers opposed to the airport’s encroachment on their land. Passengers must present their tickets to police and submit baggage to X-ray inspection even before they may enter airport terminal areas.
But Narita’s barbed-wire, electrified fences and ground sensors designed to detect any attempts to tunnel into the airport did not prevent last Sunday’s fatal baggage explosion. Indeed, experts warn that even the most stringent controls may not match the determination of a zealous terrorist. While the causes of last week’s disasters are not yet clear, they have already exposed the weakest link in Canadian airport security: the myth that terrorists have no interest in Canada. In the wake of last Sunday’s terror, the era of innocence may be gone forever. Declared IATA spokesman David Ryd: “The day of the suicide traveller willing to sacrifice himself to blow up a plane for a cause may be dawning. God help us if it does.”
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