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Russian plane crash probe prompts calls for new era of airport security

Egypt Plane InvestigatorsA fundamental overhaul of global aviation security is required in the wake of the Russian passenger plane crash, senior industry experts said, amid fears that safety is being compromised at many international airports.

Egyptian airport and security officials have launched an investigation into all staff at Sharm el-Sheikh airport who came into contact with the Russian plane, which crashed 23 minutes after takeoff, killing all 224 people on board. The move has increased speculation that a bomb may have been smuggled on to the aircraft.

Aviation experts said a new international framework was needed to prevent airport security weaknesses being exploited by terrorists. They said urgent changes were needed to upgrade security checks made on airport staff before they reached airside, as well as a thorough raising of the vetting and recruitment process of airport workers.

Matthew Finn, who last month chaired the international world aviation security conference in Dublin, said that the issue of workers such as baggage handlers reaching airside without being screened or subjected to adequate security checks had to be addressed following the apparent explosion that downed Flight 9268.

“There needs to be an international response in terms of how everybody working in the aviation environment is vetted,” said Finn, managing director of independent aviation security consultants Augmentiq. “We need to ensure people who come into contact with aircraft in secure areas are the right people and that we are recruiting the right people for those jobs.

There needs to be an international framework about how everyone working in the airport is screened and by whom.”
Global security expert Philip Baum, editor of Aviation Security International – who chaired a session during the recent Dublin conference examining possible threats from airport “insiders” – said security needed to become more unpredictable and thorough to confound terrorism attempts.

The current international approach was, said Baum, fundamentally flawed because it was too focused on producing minimum standards even lax airports could comply with.

“There would be much better security if you had no idea what type of screening process you were going to go through. One person went through advanced imaging technology, one was going to be swabbed, one was going to be frisked – from a terrorist’s point of view that’s a nightmare, and why don’t we do the same with airport employees?

“Until we address those inherent failures we are always going to have something that on the surface looks good, where passengers can say: “Security was really good because they took my bottle of water away,” which is meaningless in 2015. We need to move away from security theatre into security reality.”

Officials in Sharm el-Sheikh have disclosed that they are checking the airport’s security camera footage for evidence of suspicious activity prior to last week’s Metrojet flight. It also emerged yesterday that the examination of closed-circuit television footage of baggage handling by British aviation experts last week revealed flaws in the screening process that led to the grounding of UK flights. “We want to determine if, for instance, anyone sneaked past security officials or the metal detectors. We are also trying to determine if there was any unusual activity among policemen or airport staff,” said another Egyptian official.

The moves follow claims in the French media that an apparent explosion can be heard on the flight recorder of the downed Russian-operated plane. Investigators heard “a noise” in the final second of the black box recording, the head of the investigations committee said in Cairo, but the team of experts has not yet determined what brought the plane down. Ayman el-Muqadem said: “All scenarios are being considered … it could be lithium batteries in the luggage of one of the passengers, it could be an explosion in the fuel tank, it could be fatigue in the body of the aircraft, it could be the explosion of something.”

The focus of suspicion has increasingly homed in on both the airport’s luggage-handling arrangements and those involved in it. Amid visibly increased security around the airport, the resort’s hotels, bars, restaurants and popular areas of the city have been under greater scrutiny, with Egyptian secret police checking IDs and bags and using explosives dogs.

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