With developments in the type and frequency of terrorist attacks against the aviation industry, airport security measures have had to evolve in order to protect against threats posed both by passengers with malicious intent as well as by the insider threat. However, aircraft design also has a significant role to play in foiling inflight attacks and, in several incidents, the aircraft assembly has proven itself robust enough to withstand an inflight explosion, allowing the pilot to land safely. Shalini Levens discusses what aircraft manufacturers are doing to make aircraft more resistant both to attempted bombings and to the emerging threat of cyberattack.
When a Somali military court convicted ten suspects for organising this February’s bomb attack on Daallo Airlines, the reality of the potential for further significant attacks on the industry became apparent. The explosion on the Daallo Airlines Airbus 321 flight occurred around 15 minutes after take-off from Mogadishu, when the plane was at approximately 11,000ft (3,350m). Only the bomb carrier was killed and the pilot was able to make an emergency landing back at Mogadishu airport, aborting the flight to Djibouti. Somalia’s militant Islamist group al-Shabab took responsibility for the attack, later admitting that it had failed to bring down the aircraft since the aircraft assembly had withstood the blast.
This incident is one of the few examples of aircraft resilience to terrorist attacks after bombs have made it on board and detonated. Another example of an aircraft withstanding an explosion during its journey was the Trans World Airlines (TWA) flight 840 from Rome to Athens in 1986 that exploded 20 minutes before landing due to the detonation of an improvised explosive device (IED) concealed under a passenger’s seat. The blast created a hole in the aircraft’s starboard side, similar in nature to that of Daallo Airlines, killing four passengers who were ejected through the hole in the fuselage. Similarly, in 1994, Philippine Airlines flight 434 operating from Manila to Tokyo via Cebu became a victim of an IED that was placed in a lifejacket under the seat. The explosion killed one passenger while others were injured. The aircraft itself remained intact and the pilot was able to safely land the damaged plane in Okinawa.
The ongoing investigation (at the time of writing) into the loss of EgyptAir flight MS804, en route from Paris to Cairo, has not yet ruled out the possibility that a bomb on board was responsible. Indeed, quite the opposite. With much speculation that the aircraft was the subject of a terrorist bombing, and coming so soon after the Metrojet bombing in Egypt in October 2015 and the Daallo Airlines incident this year, the questions being asked not only focus on what the authorities can do to prevent a bomb being loaded on board, but on what manufacturers can do to ensure that, should a device make it through the security system, damage caused will not be catastrophic.
Aircraft manufacturers are enhancing security in aircraft design via a number of methods. A few of these methods include: aircraft hardening against inflight explosion; assessing and enhancing Least Risk Bomb Locations (LRBL); the provision of systems to prevent hacking and cyber-attacks; flight deck door construction; secondary barriers; the development of systems which limit control of the aircraft to authorised persons, and; systems which might indicate the presence of a stowaway on board.
Aircraft hardening against inflight explosion has become a trending topic of interest since the loss of Metrojet flight 9268, twenty-three minutes after its departure from Sharm el-Sheikh bound for St. Petersburg. Even though early speculations concluded that Islamic State (IS) was responsible for the attack – and the group even claimed, in Dabiq (its own publication), that a rather crude device utilising a soft drinks can had contained the deadly charge – there were still sources that maintained that the aircraft had been in poor mechanical condition. Another source brought to light the fact that the engines had start failures. The airline denied claims that the aircraft was not in perfect working condition. Nonetheless, all the indicators suggest that the inflight explosion was caused by an improvised explosive device infiltrated on board, and probably by an insider working at the airport.