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Wednesday, 7 November, 2001, 16:31 GMT
'Rethink needed' on airline security
Airport security is tight, but experts warn that the threat might change.
Armed officers are a regular feature at UK airports.
Even Concorde passengers have to eat their in-flight meals with plastic cutlery in the wake of the 11 September atrocities.

The risk of someone turning their stainless steel dinner knife into a lethal weapon is not one any airline is now prepared to take.


It is entirely pointless stopping one line of attack when there are so many other lines of attack

Chris Yates
Jane's Transport

Understandably, the horrific events in New York and Washington have turned the focus onto security, forcing checks at UK airports to be raised to a state of high alert.

But is the security spotlight just following one modus operandi (MO) - that of the suicide hijacker - and targeting the minutiae, like confiscating seemingly harmless items from passengers, such as a pair of nail clippers, for fear they might be used to hurt someone?

It seems that despite all the efforts to make airlines and airports terrorist-proof, anomalies are still occurring.

Four friends were able to enter Gatwick Airport last weekend allegedly with an assortment of weapons in their luggage.

Police patrolling Heathrow
Security experts say more detection equipment is needed at airports
Vigilant Customs officials searching the men's bags are said to have found combat knives, knuckle-dusters, stun gun and mace spray.

Yet these cases had been checked in at Orlando Sandford Airport in Florida and placed in the hold of an American Trans Air flight.

It appears that unlike in the UK, luggage is not routinely X-rayed in the US, although spot checks are carried out.

'Unthinkable'

At Chicago's O'Hare Airport a man was nearly allowed to board a plane with an arsenal of weapons, despite being caught carrying two knives through a metal detector minutes earlier.

It was a random check of his hand luggage by airline staff at the departure gate that uncovered his other weapons - seven more knives, a pepper spray and stun gun.


It seems to me that nobody is realising that there is a bigger picture

Chris Yates

Chris Yates, aviation safety and security editor for Jane's Transport, believes resources are being targeted almost entirely towards the actions of one type of terrorist, the suicide hijacker.

"It is entirely pointless stopping one line of attack when there are so many other lines of attack," he said.

"It seems highly unlikely that another suicide hijacking would occur in short order. The next attack could be a bomb in a bag, with that bag being placed on the plane, in the hold, a la Pan Am 103.

'Normal hi-jacking'

"We could equally see a normal hijacking. Terrorists change their MO.

"It seems to me that nobody is realising that there is a bigger picture."

Mr Yates said that while airports have the technology to detect metal, plastic explosives and explosive material on the body, there is no method of picking out liquid explosives.


I think mobile phones should be kept in the hold as a matter of course

James McCracken
Security expert
He stressed: "We need to take a long, cold, hard look at the way we operate security and we need to do it in a multi-layered way, so that it covers everything from intelligence gathering at the top to disseminating that information down the line.

"We need equipment in place that can detect all the main types of explosives used in airplane bombing and X-ray equipment that can detect every carbon fibre composite weapon."

Mr Yates said it was futile making passengers use plastic cutlery on planes, when the stewardess continues to serve wine in a bottle.

"You could break the glass and have a weapon that would rip someone's throat out," he said.

"Screening in the US has been less than effective," said Mr Yates.

Recent airport security alerts:
Weapons found on Chicago passenger
Reporter boards Go plane at Stanstead
Knives, knuckle dusters, mace spray and stun gun at Gatwick
"Frankly, it is quite appalling that anything that could be termed a weapon could be loaded on to a plane.

But Mr Yates added: "Most airlines, certainly in the US, are reluctant to do anything that costs a significant amount of money and slows down their operation."

James McCracken, a Scotland-based security expert and one-time security advisor to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, said he had uncovered many safety lapses at airports during his globe-trotting work trips.

He told how at Londonderry Airport he had been able to carry a pint of Guinness, bought in the check-in lounge, to the departure lounge without the drink going through the detector.

"I could have had a small mechanism hidden inside the liquid it is so black," he said.

He warned police in Glasgow about a conversation he overhead in Londonderry about how easy it was to to beat gate checks on arrival in the Scottish city, but, he said, to no effect.

He also argued that there were many other devices, such as guns that look like pens and mobile phones that contain explosives, that were available from gadget magazines, but are not picked up by detectors.

"I think mobile phones should be kept in the hold as a matter of course," added Mr McCracken.

See also:

07 Nov 01 | Europe
Concorde back in business
06 Nov 01 | England
Britons held in airport alert
16 Oct 01 | UK
Keeping air passengers safe
07 Nov 01 | Americas
US airport security 'in crisis'
07 Nov 01 | UK Politics
Blair prepares for Bush talks
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