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Analysis: safety catch

Man with a gun on a plane to represent a major incident

Fears of terrorism are high on the corporate agenda, but the aviation industry is rising to meet the challenge

Last April a passenger on a Delta Air Lines flight from Manchester to New York JFK had a nasty surprise when entering one of the aircraft’s toilets – a loaded handgun was found lying on the wash basin. The passenger feared the worst: was this the start of a major in-flight terrorist incident?

Fortunately not, since the crew – once alerted – discovered that the gun had accidently been left in the cubicle by one of the thousands of armed US Air Marshals who fly incognito on international and US domestic flights every day, prepared to act in case of a terrorist attack.

The air marshal, a woman who reportedly had only recently joined the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), could have had some justification for her mistake: a survey for the TSA carried out by the Harvard Medical School revealed that more than eight out of every ten marshals on international flights suffered adversely from the effects of sleep deprivation.

Gunfights in the air?
Although the marshal’s mistake did not lead to any tragedy, it does act as a firm reminder to travellers of the rather worrying potential scenario of a gunfight at 30,000 feet taking place. And this is not as unlikely as flyers may imagine. Last year US airport bag checks discovered a record number of guns in passengers’ carry-on luggage – some 3,391 weapons, about nine a day, and a 28 per cent increase over 2015, according to the TSA.

More to the point, some eight out of every ten guns discovered were loaded, with a significant proportion having a round ‘chambered’ or ready to fire. It is not just guns that are found: hand grenades, both imitation and real, are popular items, along with knives of all types and even gunpowder. So far this year, the numbers are even worse: a record 96 firearms were discovered by the TSA in the last week of July, beating the previous record of 89 set earlier in the month. (The TSA releases the figures on a weekly basis.) In the latest record haul, 85 guns were loaded, with 26 having a bullet ready to fire.

The TSA acknowledges that most of the guns and weapons discovered are not intentionally being smuggled through security; rather it suggests that many Americans firmly believe in their constitutional right to bear arms and ‘simply forget’ when packing bags that weapons are, in fact, banned.

But the real issue is not the number of guns found, but how many are likely to have slipped through the net. A recent test at Minneapolis-St Paul airport, for example, used actors to pose as passengers trying to smuggle explosives, drugs and fake weapons through security. According to media reports – the TSA declined to comment – these ‘passengers’ were successful in 94 per cent of attempts.

Adding to such worrying statistics, this year has seen a ratcheting up of concerns about terrorism, be it at airports, in the air or in the middle of major cities – as the recent London and Manchester terror attacks have sharply reminded all of us.

The laptop ban
But it was the new Trump administration which caused the biggest surprise: seemingly out of the blue in March it imposed a ban on laptops and other personal electronic devices in the passenger cabins of commercial flights to the US from ten airports in the Middle East and North Africa. This changed the game completely: from there being a general, unspecified threat to air travel, laptops suddenly became a clear and specific source of danger. But putting laptops with dodgy lithium-ion batteries – a potential fire-threat – in the hold, did not seem a sensible solution either.

Although the intelligence finding behind this move was not revealed, it soon led to a general tightening up of airline security on both sides of the Atlantic, including the UK also banning laptops in the cabins on flights from certain Middle Eastern and African countries.

But the US authorities, still worried that terrorists could plant explosives in a laptop and detonate it in flight, next demanded that some 280 global airports, those which are the last point of departure for flights to the US, should immediately install explosive-detection technology to check luggage. Other security measures were also imposed, focusing on enhanced screening of passengers and their luggage before boarding. The UK, in late July and early August, consequently eased its laptop ban for airports and airlines that undertook similar tough screening measures.

“Make no mistake, our enemies are constantly working to find new methods of disguising explosives, recruiting insiders and hijacking aircraft,” warned John Kelly, US secretary of homeland security at the time of the ban. He argued that the comprehensive measures were needed “because we cannot play international whack-a-mole with each new threat”.

High-tech expectations
Although intelligence gathering and monitoring are a crucial part of the aviation world’s defence, there is a belief that explosive detection tests are able to provide some degree of certainty if carried out by airlines and airports with sufficient resources.

But much more is being expected of new technology in detecting threats on the ground pre flight. New, smaller and more mobile 3-D Computed Tomography (CT) scanners, for example, are currently being tested for baggage screening by the TSA at two US airports – Boston’s Logan and Phoenix Sky Harbour International Airport – and could eventually replace existing X-ray equipment.

Previous hopes of a technological solution to threats such as that posed by ‘shoe bomber’ Richard Reid’s 2001 attempt to bring down an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami, or the 2006 ‘liquid bombs’ and 2009 ‘underwear bomber’, have generally come to naught.

The liquid bomb threat was probably the most successful of all terrorist efforts in creating problems for millions of travellers. As a result, over the past 11 years, the authorities have rigidly imposed limits on how much liquid can be carried aboard an aircraft.

There were some relaxations of the rules in 2014 to allow larger duty-free alcohol or perfume bottles to be taken through security screening by transfer passengers in special security tamper evident bags, or STEBS, but the strict rules on liquids largely remain in force.

An EU update on airport security in August suggested there were no imminent moves to end or reshape the present restrictions, with any hope now likely resting (again) on a possible technological solution involving new sophisticated scanners using radio frequency technology to locate chemical particles in explosives.

Ironically, however, the generally passive acceptance by passengers of the liquids ban over the past decade has made it harder to generate interest in developing this technology; so the company behind it has switched to focus on detecting explosives in electronic devices.

Increased concern
Unsurprisingly, the confusion and uncertainty surrounding airline safety this year has seen the issue rise smartly up the corporate agenda. The latest tracking poll of travel managers, undertaken by ACTE and American Express Global Business Travel in July, revealed that some 37 per cent had experienced increased interest from corporate travellers relating to safety issues as a result of the surge in publicity over airline safety. “Another 35 per cent said enquiries have remained stable – after a majority had already reported increased concern in April this year,” it added.

But have such concerns translated into effective changes in travel policies? ACTE executive director Greeley Koch thinks they probably have, but warns, “travel managers cannot afford to be complacent when it comes to worst-case scenario planning.” The ACTE survey, however, suggests that many travel managers have actually heeded the warnings: 83 per cent already utilise traveller locating tools, while 79 per cent provide proactive safety communications. But 45 per cent said they wanted more support from their TMC.

Wings Travel Management has coincidently offered this recently by launching a new ‘risk & alert’ portal called goSecure, which tracks travellers and enables them to receive personal alerts. Such tracking technology is currently ‘flavour of the month’ in the travel risk management sphere, although with perhaps some justification given the raised threat level.

“Our consultants can view travellers on interactive maps, track exactly what stage each traveller has reached on their itinerary, and send fast and relevant notifications to travellers and bookers if someone is at risk,” explains Wings COO Paul East.

But sometimes the technology involved is ahead of what the corporate travel manager wants, suggests Karen Janssen, chief information officer (EMEA) at Corporate Travel Management. She notes that while clients want to talk more frequently about “such techniques as utilising geotagging or mobile tracking, few have actively pushed for them to be implemented as they are not widely available within many travel technology applications at present.”

Incredibly safe
Yet for all the concerns about aviation safety so far this year, that incident with the air marshal’s ‘forgotten’ gun on board the Delta flight – while worrying in retrospect – cannot mask the fact that flying remains incredibly safe: 2016 was the second lowest year ever (after 2013) for air fatalities worldwide, according to Airline Safety Network. But the US – the country in which powered flight was invented – has a more remarkable recent record: last year was the seventh straight year in which nobody died in a crash of a US-certified scheduled airline operating anywhere in the world.

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