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When a lone terrorist walked into Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on Jan. 24 and detonated a powerful bomb that killed 35 and injured more than 165, it underscored just how vulnerable airports can be – and Canadian authorities are constantly reviewing and implementing new security measures to keep them safe.

February 24, 2011  By Brian Dunn

When a lone terrorist walked into Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on Jan. 24 and detonated a powerful bomb that killed 35 and injured more than 165, it underscored just how vulnerable airports can be – and Canadian authorities are constantly reviewing and implementing new security measures to keep them safe.

 The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority has purchased 44 body scanners for Canada's Class 1 and Class 2 airports. Photos: Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA)


The incident at Moscow’s busiest airport occurred in one of the many public areas where scores of people gather – a prime spot for a terrorist attack. Such areas are virtually impossible to screen, say security experts, and since most airports in North America don’t restrict access to terminals, security is a greater challenge. Patrick Smith, an American commercial airline pilot and author, told the Associated Press after the incident that “airport security needs to be thorough, but it also needs to be rational, and the truth is that we can never make any airport totally impervious to attack.”

Canada’s Public Safety Minister Vic Toews says the bombing highlighted the persistence of terrorists and the need to find new measures to defend against them. “Terrorists simply do not give up when one avenue is closed, and that’s why I say, we make one mistake and a terrorist might be successful,” he asserts. “That’s why we have to continue to be very vigilant, not only in terms of legislation that we’re bringing through, but also in practical measures on the ground.”


Stricter security measures at Canadian airports have indeed been implemented over the past few months, and like everything in the aviation industry, they’ve been highly scrutinized. Enhanced measures followed shortly after a Nigerian passenger tried to detonate explosives hidden in his underwear aboard a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Dec. 25, 2009.

That event expedited the deployment of Canada’s first full-body scanner at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), a technology it had been testing for almost two years previous to the incident. And shortly after that, Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Halifax also installed body scanners. CATSA has purchased 44 scanners and more than 36 are operating at Canada’s 16 Class 1 or Class 2 airports.
Pat-downs have also been in effect pre-Christmas 2009, and full-body scanners since June 2008, in Kelowna, B.C., according to Mathieu Larocque of CATSA. The only change is that passengers selected randomly for further screening can opt for the full-body scan or a pat-down.

CATSA’s new testing facility in Ottawa allows the agency to evaluate new leading-edge technologies like the next-generation X-rays and full body scanners. One of the first technologies tested there was a split-lane system, which is being deployed across the country. Split-lane is a conveyor system that attaches to a pre-board screening X-ray. With split lanes, when a bin is identified by an X-ray operator as requiring further search, or if it sets off an explosive detection trace alarm, it is automatically routed into the recheck area.

Other trials over the past year have included a partnership with Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport to evaluate boarding pass scanning systems and an explosive trace detector that is currently being tested at Pearson. CATSA is also replacing the current X-ray machines for carry-on bags with aTix technology that provides multiple views of a bag’s contents.

Pat-down problems
But it’s the passenger screening procedures that have rattled a lot of travellers, particularly in the United States, where several lawsuits have been launched. Current procedures are expensive and target the wrong people, according to former American Airlines CEO Robert Crandall. Authorities are spending too much time and money on passengers such as children, the elderly and frequent flyers who do not present a security threat, Crandall argues. Instead, authorities should be spending more time trying to identify those who pose a real threat and less time on those who do not.

Full-body scanners have been in place at Canadian airports since June 2008. Photos: Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA  

A trusted traveller/Nexus program should be introduced for those who are not a threat. To identify potential terrorists, Crandall suggested airports should follow the lead of El Al Israel Airlines, which conducts thorough pre-flight background checks and has carefully trained personnel at airport terminals who can spot suspicious behaviour.

“That’s something we’re looking at,” says Larocque. “We’ve received government funding to launch a pilot project to help us identify suspicious behaviour. And it won’t be based on racial profiling, because other airports around the world claim it’s not effective.”

Airport security must focus on behavioural recognition, agrees Capt. Craig Hall, Canada director for the Air Line Pilots Association’s (ALPA’s) national security committee. Says Hall: “While the current system is doing a good job, it’s doing a bad job of identifying bad people versus bad things. When you have a security paradigm that treats a Superior Court judge the same way as a paroled criminal, you have to re-evaluate the system.”

Last year, ALPA released a white paper on a trust-based security system, noting the first security measures enacted in 1974 primarily to prevent hijackings to Cuba, must adapt to today’s new reality of suicidal terrorist attacks performed by trained individuals or groups.

Some of the key findings in the white paper:

  • “The only means of providing genuine security is to positively identify known, trustworthy passengers, process them in an expeditious manner and concentrate our finite high-technology and behavioural screening resources on the small percentage of passengers whose trustworthiness is unknown or in doubt. Such a proactive security system will defeat the terrorists by anticipating future threats, will be much more effective and efficient than current security protocols and will reduce security-related inconvenience and delays for the vast majority of the travelling public, while protecting passenger privacy to the maximum practical extent.”
  • “There is so much publicly available information on virtually every citizen that a basic determination of trustworthiness is readily achievable.”
  • “What is presently lacking, and what is sorely needed, is the ability to leverage our knowledge about an individual’s trustworthiness and use that against our adversaries.”

Hall agrees with Crandall that Canada must follow the lead of Israel, which is what the U.S. and the U.K. are trying to do. “I feel the system needs to be more targeted, given our limited resources. I’m pleased with the direction we’re headed, but would like to see it happen faster.”

Still, Canada’s airport security measures are respected worldwide and are way above the minimum standards set by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), Hall adds.

What bothers the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) is that we’re getting more and more security, but not necessarily better security, according to John McKenna, ATAC president and CEO. Says McKenna: “We’d like to see the whole procedure condensed into one process from four or five processes. Travellers are our customers and they don’t distinguish between airlines. They just see travelling as one huge inconvenience.”

McKenna also agrees with Crandall that the wrong people are being screened. “Whenever I see a granny being patted down (as was the well-publicized case of an 82-year-old woman at Calgary International Airport in January), it makes my blood boil. If she can hardly get out of a wheelchair, I doubt she can make a run for the cockpit. Security people claim they can’t discriminate, but I think they can use better judgment.”

And unlike U.S. cabin crews, some Canadian cabin crews are subject to screening, which is another waste of resources, says McKenna, since they already go through a rigorous background check before they can fly. But most crew are exempted from random screening if they are in uniform and carry their Restricted Area Identity Card, according to Larocque.

“We have to live with an acceptable amount of risk,” says McKenna. “But it costs more per passenger for security in Canada than anywhere else in the world and the cost has increased 53 per cent in the past two years. In Canada, travellers pay 100 per cent of security costs versus only 30 per cent in the U.S.”

McKenna notes Ottawa collected $700 million in revenue from security charges, of which $500 million goes towards financing CATSA, according to the last audit of the system in 2004. He not only wonders what the remaining $200 million is used for, but why a more recent audit hasn’t been done.
“And clearly the strings are being pulled by American authorities who are demanding only one carry-on bag for flights going to the U.S.,” says McKenna.

Streamlining the process
Another option has been put forward by IATA that it believes would improve security and speed passengers through checkpoints. The proposal would eliminate the “one-size-fits-all” security screening process and instead impose different levels of screening for different types of travellers, with frequent travellers undergoing a less intrusive security search than other passengers.

The concept proposes a set of three tunnels or enclosed pathways that are equipped with sensors, X-ray machines, cameras or other security equipment. Travellers will be assigned to a tunnel that reflects their security status, “Known Travellers,” “Normal Security,” or “Enhanced Security,” depending on the biometric and other personal information airlines and government authorities have about them.

Under the proposed system, passengers would identify themselves with a fingerprint, biometric passport or mobile phone boarding pass. Those walking through the Known Travellers tunnel would be subject to minimal inspection, while the other tunnels would require more stringent checks. All three tunnels would have metal detectors.

By combining biometrics, passenger data and stand-off screening for explosives, such as sensors, the tunnels could allow some passengers to walk from curb to aircraft uninterrupted. The idea is similar to Global Entry, a trusted-traveller program run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection at U.S. airports. Launched in 2008, Global Entry promises quicker U.S. Customs clearance at automated kiosks for travellers who are considered low terrorism risks. Members must undergo a government background check, submit fingerprints and pay a one-time fee of $100.

Survey says
A new U.S. survey reveals three in four air travellers believe “there has to be a better way” to conduct air travel security screening. Eight in 10 support a trusted-traveller program that would provide alternative screening measures for American citizens who submit to a background check and meet other risk criteria. Respondents would take an average of two to three more trips per year if the hassle involved in flying could be reduced without compromising security. Those additional trips would add $84.6 billion in travel spending and support 888,000 additional jobs, according to research from the U.S. Travel Association.

“Americans are clamouring for a better way, and it should be a wake-up call for our leaders in Washington,” says Roger Dow, president and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, which commissioned the survey. “An efficient air travel security screening system that streamlines the process for trusted travellers can strengthen our security and economy. “Let’s get to work building the system Americans crave.”

A majority of those surveyed believe Congress should make air travel security a top priority in the new term that began in January. According to the Consensus Research Group, which conducted the survey, “Travellers’ frustration with the system is not limited to just one or two security measures. It is across the board and includes a range of issues such as having to remove shoes and newly implemented pat-downs.”

While a similar survey doesn’t exist for Canadian travellers, we seem to be OK with our current screening procedures, according to Larocque. “According to the last survey I saw, 83 per cent of passengers were satisfied with their overall experience and 75 per cent were satisfied with physical searches.”

Sign of the times
Whatever processes are put in place at Canadian airports in the months and years ahead, the fact remains commercial airline travel is getting more and more difficult. Fortunately, as federal Transport Minister Chuck Strahl vowed last December, the “provocative” American pat-down procedures that sparked John Tyner’s “don’t touch my junk” comment to a U.S. screener that went viral on YouTube, won’t happen north of the border. Says Strahl: “Canadians obviously have the right to expect to be treated properly and respectfully at airports.”

Being treated properly and respectfully at Canadian airports – now there’s something commercial passengers deserve.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on Canadian airport security. In the May/June issue, Wings looks at airport cargo and the transportation of dangerous goods.


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