The Dubai plane bomb found in October 2010 highlighted a whopping great hole in airline security that the European airlines have been ignoring for years.
Only 40% of freight cargo to America travels on cargo planes. Most packages – around 60% of them – are loaded onto passenger planes. Over 10,000 parcels are flown from the UK to the States every day. That means more than 3,650,000 packages each year are circumventing the security checks passenger luggage goes through. The packages may start their journeys inside Europe, or as with the Dubai plane bound for the US, they may come from elsewhere.
Philip Baum works for Green Light Aviation Security International. In an interview with Britain’s Telegraph newspaper he described the risks of loading cargo as opposed to loading passenger luggage, which is always X-rayed and may be opened and searched.
“X-ray is hugely limiting when it comes to cabin baggage” he says. “It has even greater limitations with checked baggage and it is almost useless when it comes to cargo. There’s a lot of cargo stored on passenger planes. There are a lot of people sitting there wishing or believing that everything they are sitting above has been screened in exactly the same way as them. It isn’t. You cannot effectively screen cargo with technology. Cargo security has always been a loophole – it is a system which is open to abuse. In the UK we do a pretty good job, but globally there is a huge problem with the security system.”
Lord Carlisle of Berriew is a former government advisor on terrorism. In the same article he said that it’s “completely unrealistic” to screen all cargo effectively:
“Frankly, in any country, there is a possibility of a parcel bomb being inserted onto an aircraft. Cargo goes on passenger aircraft and exactly the same problem arises with that cargo. The sheer mass of packages going through the international courier system means that there is a margin of error.”
Bizarrely, while passengers are trundling at a snail’s pace through airport security checks – opening their luggage, taking their laptops out, putting belts and coins and watches in little plastic trays, removing their shoes and having water and mascara confiscated – millions of packages travelling as cargo are being freely loaded into the holds of their planes.
Professor David Menachof works at Hull University Business School and researches supply-chain security. He says that less than 5% of the cargo loaded onto passenger planes during 2008, worldwide, was screened. “We clamped down first on the passenger side of things” he says, “but there is no international standard for how screening and security checks are done.”
Within Europe, there is no Europe-wide policy on screening cargo travelling by plane. This is something that American officials have very sensibly been calling for. At present, depending on the country or the airport, cargo may or may not be X-rayed or checked by sniffer dogs. The fact that terrorists from the Yemen were able to simply send bombs via UPS, without bothering to go anywhere near an airport themselves, demonstrates how inadequate the security checks are. They simply built bombs with two explosive chemicals – PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate) and lead azide – put them in printer cartridges, addressed them to US synagogues and paid UPS to freight them. The bombs were capable of being detonated by mobile phone text message. Since UPS, like other freight companies, sends customers very detailed information about the location of their parcel, the terrorists would have been able to choose exactly where and when they would detonate the bombs had the plot not been foiled.
To date, Europe’s aviation and freight industries have resisted the calls for screening from the US because of the time and money involved in implementing them. Now, after the “UPS bomb plot” has shown how risky unscreened cargo can be, the costs of screening will surely have to be weighed against the potential loss of life if cargo continues to travel unchecked.