The scary truth about airport security

What works, what doesn’t—and why body scanners aren’t the answer

Cathy Gulli, with Tom Henheffer, Rachel Mendleson and Nancy Macdonald

The scary truth about airport security

When it comes to combatting terrorist bombers and hijackers on airplanes, Canada has a secret weapon that is the envy of every nation: our sky marshals, a covert cadre of elite RCMP officers. Armed undercover operatives, they are rigorously trained to detect and eliminate any and every threat to passengers, flight crew and aircraft, and they must be re-certified twice a year. “What happens at 30,000 feet must end very quickly,” the officer in charge of the Canadian Air Carrier Protective Program told Maclean’s on condition of anonymity. “The only way to do that is to be very­, very good at your job.”

Canadian sky marshals are so good at their job, in fact, that they have trained Thailand’s unit, and played a major role in creating the French, Dutch, Czech, Polish and British in-flight security programs. Now even Israel, whose Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv is considered the gold standard of airport security, wants to learn from Canadian sky marshals. “Their training is first-class, next to none,” says Rafi Sela, president of AR Challenges, a security consulting agency active in Israel and North America, who has chastised other aspects of Canadian air transport security. “The air marshal program in Canada,” he told Maclean’s, “is the best in the world.”

But can the same be said about other security measures at Canadian airports? As hyper-competent as our air marshals may be, they are a last line of defence. Before a terrorist meets them, a lot of other airport security measures must fail—or be missing altogether. Ever since a Nigerian linked to al-Qaeda tried to bomb a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, Canadian airports have come under scrutiny by esteemed aviation experts and frustrated travellers alike. They condemn the ever-expanding prohibited items list and mandatory pat-downs of people going to the United States—after Dec. 25, Toronto and other Canadian cities had the worst travel delays in the world, according to the International Air Transport Association. New security measures, such as the 44 body scanners, each worth $250,000, that will soon be delivered to major Canadian airports, are being called everything from a knee-jerk reaction by the federal government to a waste of money. If a terrorist stuffed explosives in his body cavities, this cutting-edge technology probably wouldn’t catch him, according to Mathieu Larocque of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), a division of Transport Canada in charge of pre-screening passengers and baggage.
Even though Canada wasn’t directly involved in the Christmas Day incident, what happened matters to us because so many flights that originate here head to the U.S., and the two countries share a similar approach to aviation security. Our realities are intertwined, and we are now living in a “post-Dec. 25” society, as Jim Facette, president of the Canadian Airports Council, puts it. “I don’t know if threat levels have changed, but what has changed is the airport experience.” There is a growing sense throughout the global security community that while traditional tools such as metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs are important in a “multi-layered approach” to air transport security, they aren’t the only or even the best ways of fighting terrorists.

New security models, such as what is done at Ben Gurion, are getting lots of attention. The Israeli focus is on behaviour screening, a controversial method of identifying danger by analyzing how people answer benign questions. Transport Canada is preparing to issue a $400,000 tender for a company to help develop such a program. There are also calls for Canada to move away from just “airplane security” toward access control and surveillance outside of and throughout the airport. Finally, futuristic technologies in the works, including “smart seat belts” that enable flight crew to put passengers in lockdown, and “brain fingerprinting” that senses travellers’ intentions, have ignited debates over the marginal safety benefits relative to the massive cost.

How much security is enough, and what tools work best, is almost impossible to say because “we don’t know how many attempts there have been that we’ve successfully foiled,” says Mark Salter, a security expert and political science professor at the University of Ottawa. Intelligence agents don’t exactly publicize that information. “One of the core conundrums about airport security or counter-terrorism is that we don’t know what the bottom denominator is.”

One thing is for sure: even the finest in-flight operatives don’t make up for other security measures that are ineffective in stopping radical thugs from boarding planes. So after air transport authorities have spent billions, brought in increasingly tedious and annoying rules, and made flying an infuriating hassle for the 99.99 per cent of innocent travellers, we still don’t know just how much safer we are. It’s hard to tell where the holes are until someone walks through one. But “if you have a gap in security,” says Sela, “you have no security.”

O n Dec. 27, Kim McInnes and her family were scheduled to leave Toronto for San Juan at 10:15 a.m. They arrived at Pearson International Airport a couple of hours early. Check-in took about 15 minutes, and then Kim, her husband and their two teens made their way toward customs and security. That’s when the family got their first glimpse of the madness that had beset Pearson in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing attempt: mobs waiting to get through. Airport personnel passed out water bottles for fear people would faint. Police arrived, in case things got unruly. “It was obvious that security was totally overwhelmed,” says McInnes. “People had no clue what was going on.”

When the family finally got to security, they were patted down, as per Transport Canada’s emergency screening directive. “Everybody took their shoes off. They ran their fingers through people’s hair. They felt your whole body,” says McInnes. “They lifted up your pant leg and felt down your sock and up your lower leg.” They swabbed people and purses for gunpowder. McInnes even heard of babies woken up for inspection. By the time the family’s plane left the tarmac, nine hours had elapsed. McInnes wasn’t pleased about the delay. “It didn’t make me feel any more secure,” she says. “But it did make me more frustrated.”

What happened at Pearson, and at airports across the continent, was born out of shock that despite layers of security put in place after 9/11, numerous red flags concerning the Christmas Day terrorist, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, went ignored: he paid in cash for his ticket, had no luggage, his father had warned American authorities of his son’s fanaticism, and other intelligence foretold of an imminent attack. In the end, Abdulmutallab was only caught because the bomb, hidden in his pants, faltered and started to burn him alive. That disaster was so narrowly avoided is outrageous, says John McKenna, president of the Air Transport Association of Canada. “Anybody who’s not drunk from Christmas Eve would have noticed something weird was going on.”

But would Canada have been able to stop him? Until now our system hasn’t been much different than in most other places, as per the security guidance set forth by the International Civil Aviation Organization, which governs practically every airport in the world. Security authorities are coy about exactly what Canada does to keep its airports safe: “It’s what you see,” says Larocque of CATSA, “And what you don’t see.”

Metal detector archways are used, but that technology is “older than most planes flying in the air,” says McKenna. Carry-on baggage is placed in a X-ray scanner, where screeners look for prohibited items—dozens of taboo goods fall into eight categories. Checked luggage goes through a labyrinth of security levels and, depending on what alarms go off, may be run through an MRI-like machine. Sela says these scanners are inefficient, though, because one in three suitcases sets off a false alarm. When something suspicious is identified, CATSA says the traveller is supposed to be called on the public announcement system to watch as the luggage is searched manually by an officer. If the person can’t be located, the inspection may proceed anyway. No checked bags are supposed to get loaded on the plane unless the passenger is on board, too. This, however, wasn’t the case of the Air India bombing in 1985, when terrorists finagled airport workers into putting bags containing explosives onto a plane that they never took. Those scanners? They weren’t working properly, and airport personnel weren’t savvy.

While security authorities won’t confirm the use of bomb-sniffing dogs, Cliff Samson, president of the Canadian Police Canine Association, says they are in place at major airports. He believes dogs are “every bit as effective” as machines at detecting explosives, and they can seek them out in a way that huge, stationary equipment can’t. Unfortunately, they can only work for short spurts, and are pricey. A dog can cost a police department $12,000, and the 16 weeks of training is run by a person making at least $60,000 a year. And the scope of what a dog can identify, including bomb-making paraphernalia or weapons, is limited. “They aren’t going to know if somebody’s got a box cutter in their pocket,” says Samson.

That’s why he supports the federal government’s move to install body scanners at airports in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver. Even though these machines have been painted by critics as a haphazard new measure, plans to implement body scanners have actually been in the works for more than 18 months. Transport Canada got the green light from the privacy commissioner and Health Canada, and then tested them starting in June 2008 at the airport in Kelowna, B.C. The government’s original rollout plan for the body scanners was this spring. So even if the Dec. 25 terrorist incident had never happened, Canada would still be getting the machines.

From a technological perspective, these “millimetre wave” body scanners are a dramatic step up from the equipment currently used in airport security. The scanner can pick up metal, plastic, rubber, wire, ceramic and liquids, even tucked inside pockets. Low-level radio waves pass through clothing, and a computer produces a 3-D image of the passenger. The image, essentially of a naked body (the face is blurred), is viewed by a screener in a separate room, who doesn’t know the identity of the person. It’s erased immediately after the screener issues clearance via radio to another officer standing with the traveller.

But not everybody thinks these innovative machines are worth the money. For starters, body scanners probably won’t pick up explosives concealed in body cavities or consumed, which still leaves bombers with the ability to get explosives onto the plane. What’s more, the exorbitant purchase price may get passed onto passengers, warns McKenna, in the way of air travellers’ security charges. Plus, the machines add an extra step—and more time—to the already slow process of getting through security. (CATSA says it takes about a minute for the image and clearance to happen, and the scanner will be used only as “secondary screening” for U.S.-bound flights, meaning it occurs after the usual metal detector/X-ray scanner step. Travellers under 18 skip the body scanner, and get a thorough pat-down instead. Others can choose this, too.) Some people are getting fed up: “They’re saying, I’m not going through the hassle,” continues McKenna, “I’ll make a conference call or I’ll drive.”

Maybe worst of all, critics argue that body scanners put too much focus on objects rather than people and their intentions. The use of body scanners “is, excuse my French, a heap of crap,” says Sela. He believes even the most lethal item is only truly dangerous if a person intends to use it. He once asked the heads of air transport security in Canada and the States if a loaded gun in his handbag would be considered a threat. Of course, they said. “When did I last try to hijack a plane?” Sela remembers retorting. “What’s the point of checking the bags instead of the people to whom the bags belong? If I have a loaded gun in my bag, you know I will never use it because you know me.”

That’s the whole idea behind behaviour screening, which is central to security at Ben Gurion in Tel Aviv. From the minute people get within half a kilometre of the airport, the questions and analysis start as trained officials try to detect danger in physical signs, vocal intonation and other clues. Drivers are stopped as they pull in and asked how they’re doing, where they’re coming from and where they’re going. Travellers are assessed as they enter the terminal, and then greeted by “very polite” interrogators, as Sela describes them. Suspicious responders are directed to an electronic booth in which a screen displays more queries. What is your mother’s maiden name? How many years ago did you graduate from school? The computer reads the person’s body temperature and eye movement for indicators of a malevolent motive. To get their carry-on luggage scanned, less than a hundred travellers are allowed to assemble in a series of blast-proof rooms so that, in the event of an explosion, the harm is limited to a small number of people.

Dubious bags are put inside a “bomb box” and sped away by explosives squads. People go through a metal detector, says Sela, “but we don’t care about that. We care about how you react before you get to the metal detector.”

This approach couldn’t be more at odds with Canadian airport security today, and experts such as Sela say we aren’t taking the right approach at all. Although Transport Canada says it’s looking for assistance in developing a behaviour screening program, it will be some time before this is fully implemented across the country’s airports. Even then, it will likely never match the extreme thoroughness of Ben Gurion. Still, it couldn’t happen soon enough for observers such as Robert Poole, Jr., founder and director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation, a California think tank, who says, “We should focus on bad people rather than banned objects.”

But others are concerned that this method of identifying the bad guys will give way to stereotyping, as well as ethnic and racial profiling. “If you have a new Canadian or a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language well or whose sense of relating to authority or answering questions is radically different, then you may get false positives,” says Salter. “There are cultures in which looking an authority figure in the eye is incredibly rude or dangerous. If behaviour screening doesn’t take into account the many ways that different cultures interact, then you could make really bad judgments.”

That’s a chance Sela is willing to take. He believes that being suspicious of people who are, say, sweating on a cool day, is common sense. “You might be sick or be nervous about the flight, which we can determine very quickly.” He says he would rather make a mistake and then apologize to a traveller than take a chance just so no one is offended. “Security is not democratic, and it’s not politically correct. You have to do what you have to do.”

B ut what must we do, and how far should we go in the name of airport security? The search for better, high-tech, or impermeable measures is never-ending. “We’re always looking at new procedures to ensure security,” says Larocque. Last spring, the agency ran a six-week pilot test of bomb-sniffing machines at Pearson similar to the ones used in other high-profile buildings. They puff air as a person walks through the archway and then analyze the particles for explosive matter. The machines were rejected, says Larocque, because “the maintenance and reliability of the units were not good.”

There are other measures that experts point to as the future of airport security. Poole hopes to see a registered traveller program where frequent flyers get advance clearance from federal intelligence agencies and a biometric card so they can get checked in and board faster, and with less hassle. He says this would cut the traveller congestion by a third to one-half, and save airports money on staffing screeners and running machines. It could also allow security officers more time to concentrate on travellers who may need further scrutiny.

Once people are on board, some security experts say surveillance should continue. “Airline passenger management systems” are being considered in the U.K. and the States, which can monitor travellers and their movements using a computer network hard-wired to seats, says Mark Cailles of MC Associates, a security consulting and training agency in the U.K. “Smart seat belts” would allow flight crew to lock passengers into place or only let a certain number of people out of their seats at a time.

That we “throw technology” at whatever problem comes our way troubles experts such as David Gillen, professor and director of the Centre for Transportation Studies at the University of British Columbia. In the case of the Christmas Day bomber, there were warnings and Abdulmutallab was flagged as a threat, but he still got through security. Body scanners wouldn’t have changed the fact that “there was a failure of information transfer,” Gillen says. Even the best-trained screening personnel are fallible­—on a bad day, they could miss a suspicious image that shows up on the X-ray machine. They could turn their gaze just as a terrorist starts to sweat. Even the catalogue of banned items is inadequate because there are always more potential things that could be used as a weapon. “The prohibited items list,” says Salter, “always chases the last failure.”

That’s why all this security one-upmanship makes Gillen so uneasy. “The optimal level of service is not an infinite amount of security,” he says, “Otherwise we would be flying around on hospital gurneys all the time.” He and others advocate implementing measures in proportion to the actual threat level Canada faces. While Ben Gurion is indeed impenetrable—it hasn’t had an attack since 1975 (“And believe me, people have tried,” says Sela)—the political reality in Israel is much harsher than in Canada. Salter says the level of interrogation and surveillance required there would be excessive here. Observers also contend that the more screening that travellers have to go through, the more terrorists win—even if they fail to blow up anything—because we have fallen victim to fear and paranoia.

The last thing anyone wants is for another plane full of people to have a terrorist in their midst and not know until the bomb literally starts smoking. Measures such as bans and body scanners are, in the best-case scenario, an annoying waste of time and money, and in the worst case, exactly appropriate. There’s another uncomfortable, undeniable truth in this “post-Dec. 25” climate. No matter how many security measures Canada pursues, 100 per cent safety is an elusive goal. “At some point,” says McKenna of the airline association, “you have to say there’s an acceptable risk.”

Even if we make every airport a fortress, there are plenty of other public spaces that terrorists could strike. Having inviolable airports only shifts our vulnerabilities elsewhere. In some perverse way, that terrorists have so far been mostly obsessed with attacking North American aircraft has simplified the security effort; their fixation has confined the danger zone. For now.