The photo of the jagged passenger-sized hole blown in the side of a jet shortly after it took off from Mogadishu in Somalia last Tuesday is the stuff of air traveller nightmares.

Immediately to the left of the rupture, some images show a smear of blood from the suspected bomber, who was the only fatality in the botched attack, as the Daallo Airlines A321, which had reached an altitude of around 14,000 feet, immediately returned in one piece to the Somali capital’s airport.

Another A321 wasn’t so lucky on October 31 last year after it was more severely ruptured by a bomb blast after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai Peninsula for Saint Petersburg.

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It was blown up at around 30,000 feet and fell broken apart to the desert below, killing all 224 people on board the Russian charter airline flight. Residues of explosives have been identified in both cases.

But are fears of a new wave of bomb attacks on airliners overblown? They are, even though “we”, the herd, are helpless to do anything about such risks in anything but a theatrical manner.

In Mogadishu, where bombing atrocities punctuate the long-running and horrific human tragedies that are the lot of Somalians, one suicidal — or murderous — but undoubtedly incompetent bomber means nothing.

For travellers in Australia and abroad the unpalatable truth is that nothing will necessarily stop a determined terrorist from bombing an aircraft, or the much easier targets of a mosque, a school, a shopping centre, a train, or a maximum damage road location, such as inside a tunnel or on a bridge.

We could nominate any number of places such an atrocity could occur. “Fear porn” is a big thing in the media, and few seem to consider the risk of encouraging copy-cat attacks.

But it can be responsibly said that there is next to zero effective security aimed at preventing bombing atrocities at large, other than first-class policing and targeted intelligence, which are necessarily limited methods and are no good for mass screenings.

In this country, the calculated avoidance of a 100% screening regime for air travellers, airport workers, their carried and checked luggage, their parked vehicles, their retail shopping displays, and air freight is a matter of orchestrated feel-good massaging of the messages about how good our security procedures are.

They are good for the stakeholders, the airports and the airlines, because if screening were truly universal, there wouldn’t be any mass air travel to, from or within Australia.

No one can afford to make the “system” safe. It would take hours to move people from the terminal doors to the plane doors, with no time for those lounges that some people seem to think are an essential part of flying.

However, the security “system” at airports, here and almost everywhere, does create a few minor barriers to an attack on the ground or on the plane, although no one has ever answered formal questions as to what would happen if an explosives-carrying passenger were actually revealed to be in the building, metres away from security staff.

This reporter has, like no doubt many semi-regular flyers, triggered security. I’ve tested positive for molecular traces of suspicious chemicals on domestic flights, leading to the question as to whether I live on a farm. I do — I live between two cattle properties. When I say I do, no further checks are made on my address, my ID, or anything else.

Similarly, a friend who has been stopped several times for a positive test has been in effect coached into agreeing that she works in an office with a copy machine or printer chemicals. No further checks.

People who test positive to explosive traces risk holding up the passenger flow and are a nuisance, to be explained away, while the theatrical side of security grinds on.  

In the totally harmless cyclotron-type imaging device that zaps just about everyone catching an international flight these days the writer almost always generates a “hot spot”. The security operator shows me the G-rated version of the scan, and my left elbow glows. Right where it was smashed by falling ice in an avalanche on the east face of Mt Cook in freaking 1972! “It’s an old injury,” is always enough to continue on. It means that almost every time I take a plane to somewhere I want to go, I’m taken back to a place where I nearly ended.

These security rituals won’t necessarily stop anyone carrying a bomb stuck up their rectum, or in a particular part of an electronic device and so forth, from boarding a flight or attacking a terminal.

They are a sham no one dares dismantle. All we can do is get on with our lives, and our travels.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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