Russian plane crash: Calls for new era of airport security after Sinai terror. Fears focus on screening of baggage handlers as aviation experts demand new global response.
A fundamental overhaul of global aviation security is required in the wake of the Russian passenger plane crash, said senior industry experts, amid fears that flight safety is being compromised at many international airports.
The Observer has learned that 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.
In the wake of the disaster, 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 move away from security theatre into security reality
“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 both more unpredictable and thorough to confound future terrorism attempts.
The current international approach was, said Baum, fundamentally flawed because it was too focused on producing minimum standards that 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,” he said. “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 on Saturday that the examination of CCTV footage of baggage handling by British aviation experts last Wednesday afternoon revealed evidence of 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,” said another Egyptian official. “We are also trying to determine if there was any unusual activity among policemen or airport staff.”
The latest moves follow claims in the French media that the sound of an apparent explosion can be heard on the flight recorder of the Russian-operated plane that came down over the Sinai peninsula.
In recent days, the airport has been visited by senior Egyptian military and intelligence officials, while British officials have also been active behind the scenes helping to supervise tightened security measures.
According to officials, investigators have started questioning staff and have begun surveillance on those who worked on the Russian flight. The widening hunt for a potential bomber follows reports that the airport’s director had also been called to Cairo to be interviewed by officials.
The comments came as the focus of suspicion in the downing of the jet has increasingly homed in on both the airport’s luggage-handling arrangements and those involved in it.
There have been reports that security agencies received intelligence based on intercepted communications between Sinai militants, which pointed towards a bomb on the plane.
They apparently suspect an explosive device could have been placed inside or on top of luggage by someone with access to the hold just before takeoff.
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, using dogs trained to sniff out explosives.
Denmark, Norway and Finland became the latest countries to tell their citizens to avoid nonessential travel to Sharm el-Sheikh. Foreign minister Kristian Jensen said Denmark “changed its advisory because of information we got”.
The emerging details on the probe came as both the UK and Russia pushed ahead with efforts to fly their citizens home as they came to the end of their holidays, insisting that tourists and their baggage should travel separately. There are some 79,000 Russians in Egypt, with about 20,000 Britons holidaying there at the start of the crisis.
The sheer numbers involved, and a backlog of UK flights to the resort after they were delayed, has meant that some British tourists have been left facing delays of several days before being flown home, a situation which led to chaotic scenes at the airport on Friday.