At a time when the prospects for civil aviation industry seemed to be looking up, the failed attempt to blow up a Detroit-bound transatlantic Northwest Airline flight last week has come as a rude shock. A 23-year-old Nigerian was able to slip through the security net at the Amsterdam airport and get on to the flight with explosives, later identified as PETN (pentaerythritol). It is by a stroke of luck that he failed — he sustained serious burns in trying to ignite the explosive and was overpowered by the crew and fellow passengers. Airport security was the final line of defence that he had breached. Based on information, he had some months ago been noted as a potential terrorist to be watched but American security agencies had failed to follow up and bar him from flying into the U.S. In addition to addressing the questions raised by the intelligence failure, the U.S. administration has also sought to tighten airport security. Obviously, there are still certain explosives and chemicals — they include plastic explosives — which cannot be detected in the existing security checks at airports. One suggestion that has emerged is the introduction of mandatory whole body scan at major airports, especially for flights bound for the U.S. Nigeria, in fact, has placed orders for these scans at its four major airports, and no international passenger will be allowed to board a flight without going through this check. Many European airports already have this facility, but the check has not been made compulsory as yet.
In 2001, after a failed “shoe bombing” incident, when a passenger attempted to blow up a plane with explosive-laden shoes, American airports made it compulsory for all passengers to remove their shoes and put them through the scanner. Chemical explosives, small quantities of which are enough to blow holes through the aircraft with disastrous consequences at high altitudes, have posed a major technological challenge to airport security. Special scanning for chemicals and physical search are currently in use but they are time-consuming and involve additional cost and delays. The airlines too seem worried at the prospect of security measures and terrorist threats keeping passengers away from international flights. If the coming year was expected to see a turnround in the fortunes of airlines, the latest incident and the Nigerian suspect’s warning that more bombers were heading for the U.S. have come as dampeners. Technological developments may well make security screening at airports quicker and non-intrusive, but that is for the medium term. Meanwhile, no effort must be spared to make the screening as thorough as possible even at the cost of some inconvenience and delays.