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For the past two decades the Western civil aviation industry has been subjected to a calculated campaign of terror from terrorist groups around the world. Western planes have been attacked and bombed. Ground-to-air missiles have been fired at commercial aircraft. Airports and ticket counters have been attacked, and even airline offices have not been spared in terrorist attempts to intimidate governments and prevent the Western public from flying. Although terrorism directed at the civil aviation industry comprises only a small percentage of terrorist incidents worldwide, a successful attack produces the results most desired by a terrorist organization – mass publicity and chaos within the system. It is primarily for this reason that Western governments ought to make airport security a key element in their battle against terrorism.
In the past 20 years the airport has become a highly symbolic and politically significant place. Terrorists, criminals, and even the emotionally unstable have undertaken acts of violence at airports to make statements of one kind or another. Airports are vulnerable, difficult to defend against attacks, and visited by millions of people daily. Any kind of attack is sure to attract immediate attention from governments and the media. Terrorists simply cannot leave airports alone; nor does it make sense to do so, since they are the weak point in Western defenses.
Since the airport is a symbolic stage for both domestic protests and international grievance, terrorists have created a seemingly endless number of ways to attack it. As we have entered the 2000s, a number of questions cry to be answered: Why is this state of affairs allowed to drag on? Is it impossible to create foolproof airport security? Is there such a thing as a secure airport, and how do we go about creating one? (International Social Science 152)
The Evolution of Airport Security since 1974
From the beginning, the United States has had the most comprehensive aviation network in the world and has, therefore, had the largest stake in maintaining the security of this mode of travel. In the United States in 1973, the FAA specified three areas that should have been designated for the increased security measures: the ticket counter, the boarding gate, and the inside of the aircraft itself. At the first of these areas, increased security was accomplished with ticket agents being instructed to be aware of persons fitting what has become known as the terrorist profile. In 1969 an FAA task force under the leadership of Evan W. Pickerel identified 35 behavioral characteristics common to past hijackings. It was decided that a 100 percent search was not necessary, since a great number of air travelers were businessmen or regular fliers. Various forms of profile were attempted, not so much to detect suspicious persons as to eliminate unsuspicious ones. (Lippert 331)
At the boarding area major steps were taken to screen all passengers to prevent concealed weapons from being brought on board. At all major airports in the United States and, later, Western Europe, walk-through metal archways were installed, as well as X-ray machines to examine carry-on luggage. The insertion of these devices into aviation security was seen as a very successful step toward safer air travel. The two machines would do in a span of two or three minutes what the Israelis do in 10 or 15 minutes or even more, that is, the thorough inspection of all passengers boarding on aircraft. Security was also intensified on the flight itself, with the issuing of a set of FAA guidelines. Armed sky marshals were to be present on the aircraft and operate in much the same manner as their Israeli counterparts. This, however, was a short-lived security measure as many airlines protested it. They argued, legitimately, that these marshals were not adequately trained to deal successfully with a hijack situation within the confines of an airplane. The airlines also pointed out that an ill-trained, armed sky marshal attempting to disrupt a terrorist operation could lead to a worst disaster. Except for the sky marshal program, the introduction of the new security standards appeared to be a success. In the United States alone, the first year of X-ray and metal detection machines yielded more than 2,000 guns and 3,500 pounds of explosives with the number of hijackings reduced from 29 in 1972 to 2 in 1973. In attaining these results, 165 million U.S. travelers were screened by the new security procedures. This is where the security system stopped developing, however, since it was assumed that the enemy was static, rational, and unable to adapt. Unfortunately, the US security measures at airports did not seem so impressive when some important conditions were taken into account. (Security Management 8)
The Israeli System of Security
Airport security is a feasible goal. The proper airport security is not only possible, but is being practiced successfully by one state in the world: Israel. Israel exists in a state of war with the Arabs, and the price of survival has had to include the political will, the acceptance, and the expense involved in mounting a successful system of airport security. Western airport security, therefore, has a standard by which it can continually measure itself. No attempt of hijacking of an El Al airliner has been recorded since September 6, 1970, and that one failed because of the presence of sky marshals. Israeli airport security was implemented immediately after the hijack of an El Al plane by the Palestinians in 1968. The plane ended up in Algiers, but the incident resulted in no loss of life. Nevertheless, the Israelis instituted a series of boarding checks of all passengers on the aircraft. All passengers were thoroughly searched physically for weapons and then psychologically for inconsistencies. Every passenger underwent an extensive character check to ensure that each was really who he or she claimed to be.
To facilitate this character search, the process of acquiring tickets has changed. Complete identification is required upon purchasing an El Al ticket to allow security officials to compile a reference file on the individual. Passengers are usually asked to arrive at least two-and-a-half hours before flight time to allow a sufficient time for baggage security procedures and questioning. They are asked whether they did their own packing, whether they packed any electronic devices and where they bought them, and whether they are carrying anything, even a present, given to them by someone else. They are asked whether anyone has had access to their luggage after it was packed. If security has any suspicions they cross-check by telephone with friends or family of the passengers. It is this kind of human security that has made El Al safe from hijacking for two decades.
The other element in Israel's security system consists of an extensive technological process of baggage screening. Baggage destined for the plane's cargo compartment is first individually X-rayed and then placed together in a sealed container where the air is depressurized to simulate in-flight conditions. It is expected that if an explosive device is concealed within the bags the X-rays would discover it visually or the drop in air pressure would detonate it prematurely. As we have learned at a great cost, bombs activated by pressure changes have been a favorite tactic of terrorists recently. In the event that a bomb does escape detection, there still is the further protection of the plane. The cargo holds of all El Al airliners are reinforced with armor plating, to limit the destructiveness of an explosion.
The third element in the Israeli security system actually takes place aboard the aircraft. Passengers boarding the flight and in possession of carry-on luggage are not allowed to take such articles to their seats. All carry-on luggage’s is stored in a compartment at the front of the plane, thus eliminating any chance a would-be hijacker would have of using a weapon that had earlier escaped detection. Along with the cargo compartment, the cockpit of the aircraft has been reinforced so as to separate and protect the pilots from any activities occurring within the passenger section. In combination with this practice, the crews of El Al aircraft are given extensive instructions and training so that the proper responses were made in a hijack situation.
In-flight security on El Al aircraft is further strengthened by the presence of well-armed and well-trained sky marshals. Sky marshals have been a controversial option in the United States and elsewhere, but for El Al they have proved their worth again and again. Israeli sky marshals, or the "007 Squad" as they are known, work most often in pairs, with one situated near the front of the aircraft and the other at the rear. In this way the entire passenger section is under surveillance. Sky marshals are recruited from the Sayaret Matkal. This is an elite force that is highly trained in the areas of hand-to-hand combat, marksmanship, and, perhaps most importantly, the terrorist psyche. In the moments immediately preceding her second hijack in 1970, Leila Khaled was very much aware of the two sky marshals watching her with suspicion. Such is the impact of body language on a trained observer.
The fifth element of El Al security is something of which most passengers would be unaware. There are protective devices under the wings of El Al planes that can alter the flight of most surface-to-air missiles that a terrorist might launch along the incoming or outgoing flight path of the plane. The result of this intense attention on security in the fight against terrorism is that El Al is considered the world's safest airline.
It might well be asked, in view of Israeli success, why have other airlines neglected to implement these measures fully? The answer is that different conditions exist in Israel. The first and most apparent characteristic of the situation in Israel is the logistical one. El Al is a small, highly centralized airline company handling a relatively small volume of passengers. Compare El Al to other foreign air carriers such as Air France, KLM, Lufthansa, TWA, and Pan Am, all of which have massive operations, and the problem of instituting security of this kind becomes apparent. For these airlines to adopt El Al's security measures and initiate its meticulous passenger and baggage checks would prove to be too time-consuming based on the large volume of passengers to be examined. Under closer scrutiny, however, it can be seen that Western aviation security efforts have been plagued by a different problem. The adage, where there is a will, there is a way, can be applied to their efforts, but in reverse. The Western governments and their aviation industries have had the knowledge and the technology, but not the will to enforce El Al-like security procedures. The question is whether a really effective system can be developed that does not jeopardize the efficient running and all-important profit margins of the large airlines. The answer to this question was still not apparent in the late 1980s as terrorists sharply escalated the nature and destructiveness of their attacks on Western civil aviation targets. In the meantime, each airport manager must assess the security threat to his own airport and make sure an adequate level of security is maintained within his own jurisdiction (Coughlin et al. 9-13)
Some fundamental differences between the US and Western European airport security still remain. The former airports have experienced sustained attacks by politically motivated terrorists, many of them members of expatriate communities living within Asia. The European approach has been to increase the quality of human security in its airports, and at the same time insist on maintaining normal relations with other Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries. Such a strategy has refused to acknowledge terrorism as something more than a temporary and manageable nuisance. On the other hand, the American approach has been to rely heavily on technology. President Reagan, terrorism was designated the foremost enemy of the democracies; therefore, it was much easier to insist that European airports elevate their standards to protect American travelers than to insist on similar action at home in the United States (Anderson 73).