How appropriate that the venue for the big conference on air transport security in Sydney today is being held in Sydney’s casino.
Airport security in Australia is a gamble, full of gross public dishonesty at a political level and based on deliberate gambles that low, if not meaningless, security settings that help airlines and airports save costs will not let an attack get through.
The first shot, by Barry Jackson, the president of the Australian and International Pilots Association, almost nailed the issues of commercial expediency versus real security, but stuffed up the words.
Jackson told the opening session of the two-day International Federation of Airlines Pilots Associations Security Committee meeting that regulations for weapons screening and access were not being followed in relation to ground engineers, cleaners, caterers, baggage handlers, airside shop assistants and other non-flying airport workers and visitors.
He was wrong. The conditions are being complied with but they have been deliberately set so low as to be almost totally useless, which makes his already widely publicised comment that “commercial imperatives are compromising airport safety” spot on.
Jackson also says, on behalf of Australian pilots, that the non-enforcement of a photo ID requirement at the screening point where people are admitted airside is sub optimal.
This is a view comprehensively demolished overseas by security experts such as US-based Bruce Schneier, who have pointed out that photo ID requirements are useless.
A photo ID-equipped terrorist is just as potentially deadly as one who in the Australian system evades showing photo ID by buying an online ticket and flies domestically without checking in baggage. Both will enter a public place crammed full of people. At the security barrier, at the airport railway station, outside the arrivals hall in international or the baggage reclaim in domestic.
But the public are never reminded of the truth. That these are dangerous times, and that you can be unlucky, but not us “unlucky” as rock fishermen during high seas, or golfers at play when lightning is about.
According to Schneier, there are no such things as a “trusted passenger, a trusted pilot, a trusted flight attendant” or a trusted anyone. To paraphrase from his regular security newsletters and lectures, trusted passenger schemes are scams that collect money for supposedly shortening the experience of a security line, and that the suicide bombers and other attackers do not appear in advance on criminal and terrorist databases or exhibit the dress or physical features associated with some extremists.
The so-called no-fly terrorist watch lists that the US, for example, insists airlines use to check passengers, tell any terrorist organisation on a daily updated basis what the Americans really know. The fundamental risks of these lists being accessed by terrorists has apparently never crossed the minds of officialdom.
The biggest elephant in the room in the casino is that indefensible target, which is any tightly packed concentration of victims, such as the queue to get computers X-rayed and shoes inspected, or train stations, or single buses and trams, or bars, rock concerts and football matches.
It is also the big issue that airlines, pilot associations, airport owners, transport ministers, compliant media and all governments refuse to touch. All the back scatter X-ray devices and body scanners, all the molecular sniffers and other technologies are in the final analysis, powerless to stop the likes of the London transport bombers or the Bali restaurant bombers or the Jakarta hotel bomber walking into a throng and killing people in multiples.
But the fiction that the frustrating rituals of airport security will change this, are pumped out by governments and authorities that want to be seen to be doing something, provided it doesn’t cost the airlines and airports anything they can’t recover from passengers.
There is no doubt more could be done to tighten security at airports, and that the efficiency of such measures would rise even further to the extent that they discourage or suppress air travel. But that isn’t the Australian way, which is to insist on compliance with standards that are more about appearance than effect.
Schneier, the Strator Institute, and others repeatedly make the point that it is hard and intense work of intelligence-based policing that stops terrorists leaving home for the airport, or boarding the peak-hour tram, or joining a fast-food queue.
So far, Australia has a perfect record for using community intelligence and targeted vigilance in identifying and stopping the bombers before they join a crowd of potential victims.