Air cargo security – a critical issue of our times

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( September 18, 2012, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) Most of us in aviation recall the bombing of Airlanka’s L 1011 Tristar on the tarmac at Colombo Airport. On 3rd May 1986, Flight 512 had arrived at Bandaranaike International Airport from London Gatwick and was about to fly on to Male when an explosion ripped the plane in two. The flight carried mainly French, West German, British and Japanese tourists. 21 people were killed on the plane which included 13 foreigners – of whom two were British, 2 West German, 3 French, 2 Japanese, one Maldivian and one Pakistani. 41 were injured.

The author was Manager, Insurance of Airlanka at the time, and in addition to his duties of settling the complex insurance claims that arose from the attack, was commissioned to head an internal inquiry into the cause of the attack and the frailties of the airline’s cargo handling system. He recalls the abject vulnerability and exposure of cargo to attack that emerged from the findings of the inquiry.

Fast forward to 2012, a recent press report in the local Sri Lankan papers reported that the Colombo Airport will handle 180,000 metric tonnes of cargo in 2012. This should be looked at in the context of the alleged attempt at bombing aircraft headed to the United States which originated in Yemen on 29 October 2011. The explosives were in printer cartridges among cargo. From the early eighties, where aircraft were attacked through the cargo hold (recalling the Air India and PANAM attacks as well as the attack on the Airlanka aircraft) to using aircraft as weapons of mass destruction in 2001, to attacking airports in the nineties, unlawful interference with civil aviation has turned full 360 degrees and has seemingly returned to attacks on cargo.

Assuming that the terrorist threat is no more within Sri Lanka, and that there will be no more aerial bombings and attacks on Sri Lanka’s airports and installations, the question remains as to whether air cargo is still vulnerable. The answer is a definite yes. This applies to anywhere in the world and Sri Lanka is no exception.

Cargo security was the paramount concern at the High Level Conference on Aviation Security, convened at the International Civil Aviation Organization in Montreal from 12 to 14 September 2012. Sri Lanka was well represented by three high level aviation officials.

The Conference recalled the events of 29 October 2010 when terrorists exploited vulnerabilities in the air cargo security system to introduce improvised explosive devices intended to destroy aircraft in flight and endorsed certain principles on air cargo and mail security. One principle was that a strong, sustainable and resilient air cargo security system is essential and that the threat is to the air cargo system as a whole and risk-based consideration must be given to strengthening security measures across all aspects of the system, including enhancing the ability to recover from a major disruption. Another was that appropriate security controls should be implemented at the point of origin. Cargo and mail should come from a secure supply chain or be screened and, in either case, protected throughout the entire journey, including at transfer and transit points. At points of transfer, States should satisfy themselves that security controls previously applied to cargo and mail meet ICAO Standards. In doing so, they should avoid unnecessary duplication of security controls.

An important issue in this regard was that air cargo advanced information for security risk assessment is a developing area to enhance air cargo security, particularly in the context of express delivery carriers such as FEDEX, UPS, DHL Express and TNT Express who carry around 30 million shipments daily, which typically contain high-value added, time-sensitive cargo. These carriers guarantee the timely delivery of these vast volumes of shipments, ranging from same-day delivery to 72 hours after pick-up, virtually anywhere in the world. They operate in 220 countries and territories.

The conference noted that a real risk in the area of cargo and mail security would arise when an express delivery carrier experiences a technical problem in an aircraft and is forced to transfer cargo to a passenger carrier, in which instance strict supply chain standards should be adhered so that the risk in the transfer of cargo could be obviated.

It was essential that solid standards and mutual recognition programmes be in place in order to make sure that States all along an air cargo supply chain satisfy themselves that air cargo is secure, and so let it flow unimpeded. Such standards and recommended practices should allow for the speedy transit and transhipment of legitimate air cargo worldwide, through any combination of air routes and transit or transhipment points.

Another risk factor considered by the Conference was the insider threat and the need to implement 100 per cent screening of persons other than passengers. This includes personnel at the airport, visitors and others who do not carry a boarding card. The Conference was reminded that States needed to acknowledge that the roles of people other than passengers that are working in civil aviation can present particular vulnerabilities that should be addressed.

It was also noted that there is already an ICAO Standard which requires each State to ensure that persons other than passengers, together with items carried, being granted access to security restricted areas are screened; however, if the principle of 100 per cent screening cannot be accomplished, other security controls, including but not limited to proportional screening, randomness and unpredictability, should be applied in accordance with a risk assessment carried out by the relevant national authorities.

One of the recommendations put forward at the Conference was to establish more airport authorities with increased aviation security expertise. In this regard it was noted that comprehensive background checks of all personnel selected for hire/employment at an airport need to be carried out by the relevant State’s security agencies based on risk assessment. In addition, re-vetting of airport workers such as cleaners, duty free shop personnel, catering staff and concessionaires must be carried out frequently in order to mitigate collusion to commit acts of unlawful interference.

The author is of the view that if aviation security concerning cargo and mail were to be addressed in a results- based manner, there are two key areas that need to be enforced: sustainability and innovation. ‘Sustainable aviation security’ can be defined as the detection and prevention of, and response to and recovery from, acts or attempted acts of unlawful interference with civil aviation, utilizing means that can be sustained by the entity or entities responsible for the period of time required. It is worth noting a number of important inter-related policy principles and practices that can contribute to the achievement of sustainable aviation security. These and other means can, more broadly, support the development of a sound and economically-viable civil aviation system. The starting point for consideration of any security measure must be a risk assessment. Such risk assessments, carried out objectively by appropriate security authorities on a continuous basis and informed by available and relevant information, including security intelligence, help assure that new or revised security measures are justified, aligned with actual needs and are proportionate to the level of risk.

The Conference recognized that the sustainability of aviation security measures and arrangements is an important strategic issue for all entities with aviation security-related responsibilities.Risk-based security measures, outcomes-focused security measures, rationalization of security measures, optimization of technology, mutual recognition of equivalence and one-stop security, harmonization, and preparedness for crisis events are policy principles and practices whose implementation can contribute significantly to the sustainability of aviation security measures and arrangements.

The author submits that innovation plays a key role in ensuring sustainability of cargo security. In Sri Lanka’s particular context, this innovation could come through the advantage it has of a sophisticated military intelligence system which already exists and could be used as a tool to establish efficient cargo security intelligence that could carry out effective risk assessments.

From the time aviation was used as a weapon of mass destruction on 11 September 2001, there have been 75 terrorist attacks on aircraft and airports worldwide which have resulted in 157 deaths upto the end of 2011. When one compares that to other modes of transport, such as trains and buses there have been approximately 2000 attacks and about 4000 deaths resulting. On this basis, aviation has been fortunate. However, one cannot be complacent. The terrorist anchors himself on the Displacement Theory, moving from one mode of attack to another when the going gets bad. The 9/11 attacks on buildings turned to attacks on airports and then onwards to cargo. On 29 October 2010, two packages, each containing a bomb consisting of 300 to 400 grams of plastic explosives and a detonating mechanism were found on separate cargo planes.

This has brought the Displacement Theory to a new dimension and sustainability and innovation in cargo security is the only answer to counter this threat.

The author currently works at the international civil aviation organization