The shudders of fear by the public over aircraft bombings following the Sinai disaster are probably nothing compared to those among airport owners and their retail leaseholders in the terminals.

A genuinely secure and bomb-proof airport is incompatible with the private enterprise idea of lucrative revenue streams from a thriving, cashed-up and semi-captive flow of consumers.

And while Metrojet 9268 seems highly likely to have been brought down by a bomb planted in checked luggage, or secreted on board the aircraft, or even carried on the person of a suicide bomber, the crush of people who are essential to servicing a profitable airport contribute enormously to their porous nature in terms of workable security.

Everyone — baggage-handler unions and non-union contractors, pilot associations, and the airlines — is fiercely resistant to subjecting staff to the same intensive screening that is supposed to be applied to passengers.

If you’re catching a flight, you cross from “landside” through security to “airside” (via customs, passport control, etc) but once. But if you are staff on any of dozens of services or enterprises, you might have to cross landside/airside/landside many times a day.

And you don’t (unless you are a pilot) generally have to queue, get X-rayed and take off belts, shoes and put computers and keys in separate bins. That would mean your employers were paying you for hours in a shift just to be stuffed around.

In some airports you’d probably end up in the same category as a high-radiation-risk employee given the scanning equipment and the dubious health risks assessments and lack of transparency over how often such “perfectly safe” equipment is tested and adjusted.

Instead you have a special pass, sometimes a special door, and special secure access to the underbelly of an airport. In some jurisdictions, but notably in the United States, poorly paid security personnel have been busted at regular intervals for stealing passenger valuables in the confusion that often occurs when you are parted from computers, watches, wallets, liquids, aerosols and gels, and at times your belt, shoes and even artificial limbs.

In the US, the issue of employee crime is an everyday concern, especially compared to terrorism — the last high-profile terror attempt was the crotch bomber, who set his underpants alight as his plane approached Detroit airport from Amsterdam on Christmas Day in 2009.

But in terrorism hotspots, and Egypt’s Sinai is one of them, the risk of theft is nothing put beside the availability of flights to those who see killing civilians, including those of target nationalities, as the serving the needs of revenge or revolution.

Consider the risks and procedures in this country. The most obvious targets are the terminals themselves. It is blindingly obvious to regular travellers in the major Australian airports, domestic and international, that the availability of thorough and efficient (and well-spaced) security or border checkpoints isn’t being grown at the same pace as increases in travel activity.

In theory a bomb will be detected by molecular sniffers, which aren’t used on all travellers, or seen in your scanned luggage, which is questionable. It won’t be seen if it has been stuffed up your rectum, vagina, or secreted in continence pads for the aged.

Freight that is loaded into the hold of some airliners is problematic, in that the logistics industry and the airports have for years fiercely argued to largely compliant government agencies that the needs of security and commerce “need to be balanced”, which, for fans of Don Watson, means watered down.

There are, of course, only two pathways to be followed on airport security.

One is to do what is “possible”, which is the present approach, which is diluted to an extent by the definition of “possible” being business friendly first, and secure second. It’s common sense, yet it carries risks.

The other is to retain a lower-key theatre of security for its feel-good effects and marginal-risks reduction benefits, and accept that life  doesn’t come gift wrapped and lovely, and that everyone should be alert, go along with the farce, and hope for the best.

Just getting on with it in air travel arguably leads to the same result as draconian security. Atrocities will happen over time, whichever approach to air-transport security is taken.

But the human herds will continue to surge through the airports, and after brief ripples of horror, look the other way when some of us die, and keep on with keeping on.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey