Next threat to air travel will come as cargo, security expert warns
Last Updated: Wednesday, June 6, 2007 | 12:51 PM ET
Canada's skies are vulnerable to another attack against passenger travel unless tougher cargo controls are implemented on the ground, an aviation security expert testified at the Air India inquiry Wednesday.
"The answer to airline security is on the ground. Once the plane is in the air, it's too late," said Col. Kathleen Sweet, a professor of homeland security management at the University of Connecticut.
The inquiry is looking into security lapses that allowed B.C.-based Sikh extremists to plant a bomb in luggage loaded aboard an Air India jet in 1985. The device exploded as the plane neared the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 people on board.
To prevent another such tragedy, Sweet suggests various levels of security training for all airport staff — from vendors and janitors to cargo handlers and pilots — and to have them retrained with the latest information every year.
"Unless we get on this quickly, a plane's going to go down," she told the inquiry.
The September 2001 attacks against the United States orchestrated by al-Qaeda have left her with "great fears," she added.
"We tend to fight the last war. We're not going to have terrorists attempting to board with box cutters any more."
The next threat would likely be a bomb that ends up in the cargo hold, rather than suicide hijackers in the passenger compartment, Sweet predicted, "and we're going to be fighting the next war.
"I believe Osama bin Laden has a penchant for the aviation industry."
She says "simple training" like photos of people on intelligence search lists or common indicators that things are wrong, such as someone wearing a bulky jacket in stifling hot weather, could help prevent another attack.
Sweet said without training and refresher courses, security could miss new threats, citing the example of bombs being hidden in new ways, for example in sex toys and teddy bears.
What about the bomb detectors in every airport that screen every piece of luggage going on a plane? Why has this idea never been implemented fully? I know those machines are expensive, but come on....
If the staff at the airports is representative of anywhere else in this tight labour market, where anyone with a pulse and can do the work will suffice, then lorb help us all. All the training in the world isn't going to stop a determined terrorist from planting a bomb in some luggage. You need definitive screening techniques and technology to fill in the gaps where human error creeps in.