Air Transport World

Without a trace: recent terrorism attacks in Russia expose a potential gap in US airline security.(Security)(Related Article: Russian system aims to detect plastic explosives)

Russian investigators are homing in on RDX, the main ingredient in C-4 and Semtex, as the explosive that triggered the near-simultaneous destruction of a Tu-154 and a Tu-134 over Russia on the night of Aug. 24. The materials are believed to have been carried into the cabin inside the clothing or carryon bags of two suicide bombers who detonated the RDX at altitude, killing all 89 passengers and crew on the two aircraft.

For the US, this latest terrorist attack exposes a longstanding incongruity in the aviation security net: Checked baggage is screened for explosives while carryon items and passengers themselves are not. Although the Transportation Security Administration is mitigating the loophole via a layered approach to security, with portable explosives trace detection systems in a starring role, experts say there are crucial limitations in today's ETD and new technologies are needed for examining passengers.

In the days following the Russian attack, TSA rolled out stopgap measures pending arrival of technology. Passengers now must remove all outer garments, including suit jackets and blazers, when approaching security checkpoints, and the use of so-called "secondary" screenings is being increased.

In theory, a terrorist attempting to carry an improvised explosive device onto an aircraft in the US today will be trapped in one or more of TSA's airport security nets. On the front end of the process are intelligence activities, including the recently unveiled Secure Flight successor to CAPPS II, which currently is in testing. According to the agency, Secure Flight is a "modified version" of the earlier program.

On the tail end are explosives detection systems for luggage headed for the aircraft's baggage compartment and occasional ETD checks of carryon items at the checkpoint. Passengers themselves pass through metal detectors not designed to sniff out explosives, leaving hand searches as the only alternative for stopping the sort of attacks that are believed to have occurred in Russia. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.