Jetstar’s decision to sue Sydney Airport if necessary for damages arising from yesterday’s security shambles and its aftermath today means it is challenging the political investment in security theatrics in Australia.

It’s a courageous decision.  Since 9/11 the Coalition and Labor have sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into whipping up public perceptions that they are tough on terrorism. As they should be, of course, except that the airport procedures have always been farcical in that they contain wide open invitations for determined terrorists to do terrible things.

Terrorism policies for the last nine years seven months have been predicated on creating and satisfying perceptions for action, as well as giving successive governments the insurance policy of being able to claim they did everything possible to prevent an attack should one occur.

But what happened at T2 yesterday is a clear illustration of deliberate failings in the security processes in place which are evidence that governments have never believed in their own anti terrorism rhetoric and relied on the theatrics of computer inspections, belt removals, molecular sniffers, dog squads and other visible measures to create an illusion of concern and action.

A walk through security metal detector (or similar) was apparently briefly unplugged which raised doubts that up to 16 people who had passed through it might not have been adequately screened.

The exact circumstances are to be confirmed by an inquiry now under way by the Office of Transport Security.

Because the security systems at T2 couldn’t find the 16 passengers, who might have individually or severally been part of a clever plot to attack the public, the rules required the complete evacuation of the public from the terminal, shared by Virgin Blue, Jetstar, Qantaslink, REX and Tiger, including those already on aircraft awaiting departure.

Sydney Airport did its best to gloss over the holes in these rules when Rod Gilmour its GM for corporate affairs said ‘You can’t cut corners on security.’

In fact the rules Sydney Airport  enforced, and which dislocated thousands of travellers and caused knock on disruptions that will be felt around Australia until later today, involved deliberate officially sanctioned  short cuts that rendered the resulting chaos a useless act of security theatrics that would never have defeated a determined terrorist attack.

Sydney Airport did not recheck or fully evacuate in some cases the security contractors, airside airline employees, baggage handlers or police  based in the terminal.

It did not check their ASIC security passes, nor their persons, and nor did it unload and recheck the luggage and cargo stowed under the passenger floors of jets docked at the terminal or awaiting loading onto later flights.

The current Australian major airport security processes assume there are no terrorists or terror cooperatives among the airport police, drawn from federal and state forces, nor among the security workers, nor among the baggage handlers, nor airline staff working inside terminals driving tugs or providing customer service.

The exact circumstances of the debacle are under investigation by the Office of Transport Security.

But whatever the details, tracing these people proved totally beyond the capabilities of the massive Sydney Airport investment in security, which is so enormously important that it is contracted out to private companies chosen on lowest price.

It was a Howard government decision to turn over airport security responsibilities to a security firm feeding frenzy, in which the cheapest and obviously most incompetent tender won, judging by the results.

The airlines and airports have always made it clear to government that if it was serious about hard security for air travel it would have to rewrite the standards to a level resembling those of Israel and in the best case treble the cost, whether privately or publicly delivered, which in turn would have drastically reduced airline activity and the associated economic activity that grew because of increased competition and efficiency in air transport.

Airlines and airports have also consistently lobbied in Australia, as well as abroad, for less than totally prescriptive standards of inspection for air freight and checked luggage and photo ID.  They definitely had a point about ID, since showing a photo to prove who you are does utterly nothing to deter the legally ID credentialed terrorist attacking air travellers, and most domestic travellers in Australia will never have their ID checked if they book online and print their own boarding passes using kiosks or store the data in their smart phones for use at the gate.

In the ensuing fiasco the airlines had to pay for hotel rooms for up to 2000 suspected terrorists in Sydney and other strandings of passengers en route to Sydney.  Thousands of others were forced to go home and wait until later in the day to continue their journeys.

The rule, that all passengers and anyone not holding an ASIC card  who are in a terminal when a security breach occurs, must be rescreened, even if they are inside jets about to be pushed back, deliberately ignores the gaping flaws in airport security  if one accepts that the authorities are genuinely serious about preventing terrorist attacks.

ASIC cards are essentially issued on the basis of background checks including by ASIO.

That is, they are out-of-date the moment they are minted, since no-one can assume that the holder isn’t a ‘sleeper’ or a later convert to a radical terrorist cause, or indeed, a home grown terrorist.

ASIC card holders such as airline terminal employees use them to freely access otherwise forbidden areas of the terminals on a multi-daily basis as well as cross the security screening divide between landside and airside.

If the rules were ‘serious’ they would recognize the need to recheck ASIC holders because of the abundant opportunities for the terrorists who snuck through the unplugged scanner with devices of mass destruction like, say, a cocktail of chicken droppings and acetone, stuck up their rectums, to pass them to ASIC holding co-conspirators among the airline terminal employees who could pass them onto co-conspirators in the baggage loading area and put them on board a jet.

This is of course, an outrageously silly scenario, but so was the action to totally cosmetically unload T2 yesterday, while leaving the bellies of the jets loaded with luggage and freight.

Sydney Airport insists that there was no evidence yesterday that the luggage loading areas of T2 had been breached. But it doesn’t know that. It never knows with complete certainty who is really accessing what non-public areas of the terminal, or whether or not they are who they claim to be on their ASIC card, nor what sort of person they have become since getting an ASIC card.

In short, if any of the 16 unscreened untraceable passengers yesterday had been part of a determined plot, the logic of a terminal evacuation should have applied to every single person in the terminal they could have come into contact with, and every jet belly that any of those persons could have loaded up with an explosive device.

Of course the rules don’t require that because they are only for show, and for creating the impression that those ultimately responsible for airport security in government, in the airport operators, and in the relevant authorities, can be seen to be appearing to do everything to prevent an attack.

Plane Talking spoke to Sydney Airport and the office of the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, as well as some very well connected sources concerning the T2 ‘unplugged’ event.

On the record, both the airport and the Minister are adamant that the rules had to be followed and refused to comment on the premise that many corners were cut in the evacuation of the terminal, rendering the actions more theatrical than useful.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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