Transformational Events and Their Impacts on the Development of Aviation Security

Transformational Events and Their Impacts on the Development of Aviation Security

The editor’s note in Transport Security International’s winter 2022 edition struck a chord. Joy Finnegan’s words about the enormous and enduring human impact of attacks on civil aviation quickly led me to reflect on the massive change I have witnessed during a career in national and international aviation security strategy, policy-making, operations, oversight and crisis response.

I have learned firsthand that acts of unlawful interference against civil aviation are transformative in shaping the steady evolution of priorities, policies, measures and culture. Unfortunately, a hastily drawn conclusion about that evolution has become pervasive and must be put right.

Events Have Driven Transformation

On June 23, 1985, Air India flight 182 was sabotaged using an improvised explosive device contained in checked baggage. Three hundred and twenty-nine people perished. The same day, an explosive device in checked baggage unloaded from Canadian Pacific flight 003 detonated on the ramp at Narita Airport killing two persons. In both cases, the checked baggage originated from airports in Canada.

Immediately and through successive waves aviation security measures in Canada were enhanced. Passengers, carry-on and checked baggage, and cargo were subject to strengthened screening. Airports doubled down on access control. A comprehensive review of the entire national civil aviation security program was carried out and recommendations were implemented. Twenty-five years later, a four-year Commission of Inquiry produced more recommendations to address gaps in Canadian security and intelligence arrangements.

At the international level, Canada spearheaded efforts to amend International Civil Aviation Organization Annex 17 Standards and Recommended Practices. These culminated in the adoption on May 19, 1985, of the ground-breaking global Standard requiring the matching of checked baggage with passengers on each flight. In the years that followed, operational experience resulted in more effective, better defined and documented implementation practices. It was the first aviation security measure focused directly on countering the sabotage of aircraft in flight. These advances made reconciliation a matter of routine and ended the awkward manual matching of passengers with their checked baggage on the ramp when necessary because of the threat.

At the same time, research and development of explosive vapor detection technology was coming to fruition. Accelerated by a new sense of urgency about the threat of sabotage to aircraft in flight, promising new technologies were brought into service. And thus began a marked and intensified shift toward greater reliance on advanced scientific and engineering solutions to secure civil aviation far beyond the capability of early-generation metal detection and baggage X-ray systems.

A similar progression of transformational change followed the downing of Pan Am flight 103 on December 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland. The United Kingdom adopted a multi-point plan to enhance aviation security in the U.K.. Using many of the same elements, the U.K. successfully lead international efforts to make regional and global aviation security frameworks much more robust.

The long-term relevance of the U.K.’s campaign and the practical results from policy-making have been made clear. For instance, current international and national frameworks for air cargo security trace their origin back to the U.K.’s recognition of the need to address security throughout the air cargo supply chain, not just in cargo facilities located at or adjacent to airports and while being transferred and loaded. The measures adopted also provided the groundwork for further strengthening air cargo security immediately following the intercepted printer cartridge bomb attacks targeting U.S.-bound aircraft in October 2012.

And the list goes on: restrictions on the carriage of liquids, aerosols and gels followed a failed plot to bomb aircraft over the North Atlantic in 2006; and new security measures for footwear followed the December 2001 shoe bomber attack.

Perhaps best known are the massive changes to aviation security globally following the attacks on September 11, 2001: governance and structural changes like the establishment of the United States Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration and the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority; massive investments in technology and personnel worldwide; the introduction in many jurisdictions of new public finance arrangements for aviation security; and mandatory screening of checked baggage. That is just a small sample.

Following 9/11, transformation came also to maritime transport security through the International Maritime Organization’s adoption of the International Ship and Port Facility Security Code.

Transformation or Reaction?

The enhancement of security following acts of unlawful interference with civil aviation is a pattern. That is undeniable. When the pattern became widely recognized a conclusion reached by many — and regularly restated — was that aviation security has been reactive and not proactive. Commentators were quick to judge changes in security measures, institutional arrangements, governance and other shifts as reactions to attacks rather than things that should have been done wisely in advance to help prevent attacks.

Concluding that security has been reactive was probably a natural point to reach aided by the clarity of hindsight in connecting security information/intelligence to attacks and the wish that if only things had been done differently tragedies could have been averted. It has also been an opinion offered, with good intentions, by professionals to create some distance between how security arrangements have been done and how they should be done.

But the fact is, unfortunately, not everything can be predicted, even in the best circumstances. This remains a pressing challenge for aviation security and a truth quickly glossed over.

Consider that since 1986 International Civil Aviation Organization Annex 17 Standards have required each State keep under constant review the level of threat within its territory and adjust relevant elements of its national civil aviation security program accordingly. This requirement was originally framed and recommended by technical experts who understood that gaps and failures in even the most comprehensive systems could arise and be exploited, and not all means of attack could be anticipated. The Standard inherently acknowledged that unlawful interference would be attempted and, where it is, adjustment must be a first principle.

Absolutely fundamental to an accurate narrative about the transformation of aviation security over time is a recognition that most, if not all, significant achievements have been possible because of prolonged international cooperation. Civil aviation is a dynamic global ecosystem of jurisdictions, airlines, airports, manufacturers, labor, consumers and more. Cooperation — even in the most difficult times — has been a key feature of the context in which positive change has been made.

For example, differences in perceived security needs because of differences in aviation security threat assessment once frustrated necessary consensus building. Through cooperation, threat assessment has given way in recent years to comprehensive risk assessment using standardized vocabulary and methodology.

Risk assessment, when properly executed, more satisfactorily acknowledges and helps legitimize dissimilarity in national and regional approaches to aviation security. This important shift came about because change from analysis of threat to the more holistic analysis of risk evolved over decades. Risk assessment has generated a higher level of mutual confidence in decisions about security priorities and the allocation of scarce resources to mitigate risk.

The narrative on transformation must also acknowledge that supporting the efficiency of air transport is imperative. While critics may choose to highlight inefficiencies caused by aviation security and “failed” efforts to prevent attacks, they must also recognize the scale and scope of the challenge when applying security measures to local, national and global civil aviation systems. The development of security measures has been aided by constructive debate and experience that takes facilitation into account. It has not been an endless series of one-time, hasty reactions.

The evolution of aviation security since its earliest days has been complex and methodical, and cannot justly be described as reactive. I believe we do a disservice by tersely speaking about it as reactive. Doing so ignores the steady and deliberate progression of security as a cornerstone of civil aviation and unnecessarily diminishes processes, decisions, investments and trust that have been built up over many years of intense effort. Everything has happened in a context. The history of aviation security is best described as one of transformative events, not just simple reactions. There is an important distinction.

What Have We Learned?

Knowing as we do that transformative events lead to change, the task falls to professionals to be prepared. Preparation, of course, involves the vast range of responses to manage through a crisis event. At a point in time, depending on the nature, proximity or characteristics of the event, or a new/emerging risk, decision makers will need plans on what to do next. Creating such a plan hastily in the wake of an event can be a massive and precarious task because of all other priorities, organizational fatigue, insufficient capacity, lack of or hurried analysis, and a host of other challenges.

Instead, having a transformation plan always in progress that is ready for the assessment of rapidly developing risks, reallocation of responsibilities, realignment of priorities, corporate reporting, rapid decision making, scaling up and scaling down security measures, the acquisition of equipment, new training, establishment of task teams, interaction with stakeholders and partners, public communications, etc., is ideal. In other words, be well positioned for transformation. The prospect of transformation highlights the need to keep working on tomorrow’s needs today.

James Marriott began his career at Transport Canada shortly before the Air India tragedy in 1985. He progressed to the executive level through positions of increasing responsibility for aviation, maritime and land transportation security. In 2010 he joined the International Civil Aviation Organization as Chief, Aviation Security and Facilitation where he led policy and standards development (Annexes 11 and 17), the Universal Security Audit Program and international development assistance. He is currently president, James Marriott Consulting.