Air Transport World

Terrorist threat spurs security technology advances.

Terrorist threat spurs security technology advances

The death's-head spectre of terrorism rising from the Middle East often settles on airliners and airports as high-visibility targets, putting the aviation industry on the front lines of a war declared both in the words and in the acts of governments and government-supported groups. It is unnecessary here to recall the direct losses suffered by recent acts of terrorists against civil aircraft, passengers and crews.

Beyond those immediate tragedies, the threat of continued hostilities is creating a customer backlash reaction as severe as any safety problem, with traffic dropping sharply on many routes to and around Europe, especially in the Mediterranean region. Some formerly lucrative routes have been cancelled for lack of traffic.

The reaction of the airline customer to the threat of terrorism is about the same as one would expect if jet engines started to explode without warning on random flights. Security now is an issue on a par with flight safety.

Sadly, terrorism is not a new problem, and explosive and weapon detection research has been underway for more than a decade. This research, accelerated by a sharp increase in funding in the U.S. and Canada, promises to start paying off in the near future. Additional work is taking advantage of existing sophisticated sensoring techniques developed for other jobs, turning it to the security task.

Weaknesses in the system

The existing tools used to exclude weapons and explosives from aircraft are all labor intensive and subject to human frailties. The combination of metal detectors, x-ray machines, explosive-sniffing dogs and hand searches have been effective in the past. During 1984 in the U.S. existing screening techniques uncovered 2,766 handguns and six explosive or incendiary devices, leading to the arrest of 1,285 persons. There were three hijacking attempts in the U.S., none successful.

The increasing threat of attacks and the growing sophistication of terror groups has been met so far by greater attention to detail in screening techniques, especially when intelligence agencies indicate an increased likelihood of an attack.

But the existing tools have weaknesses. Dogs are reliable explosives detection weapons, but they have a short attention span and require a handler with whom they have had a long relation. X-rays can image metal objects or dense plastic objects in luggage or baggage, but the x-rays must be interpreted by an operator who gets bored, tired and distracted. Plastic explosives are in use and nearly 100% plastic handguns are due on the market soon; neither can be detected if a terrorist carries it on his person through a metal detector. …

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