Tragic as the events of September 11, 2001, were, they forced a needed examination of global aviation security. In this blog, we’ll look at both current problems and approaches to enhance the security of global air travel.
Since the 1970s, trade, technology, and economic growth have merged to form a state of globalization, in which the welfare of people, firms, and nations have become ever more interconnected. Concurrently, civil aviation has evolved from a heavily regulated system of government-sponsored air services and airports to an increasingly competitive global structure, in which private organizations compete with their publicly held counterparts. Global air traffic has increased exponentially over the last forty-five years, in spite of economic recessions, military conflicts, health epidemics and acts of terror. Due to the nature of its operations, civil aviation has always been a target for violent acts. The first violent incidents involving civil airliners were hijack attempts, which began in the 1960s. By the late 1970s, these were on the decline due to international treaties and plain-clothed security personnel on board the aircraft. During the 1980s bomb attacks designed to draw attention were on the rise, decreasing in later decades. By the 1990s, aviation security had evolved into a complex system combining intelligence agencies and airport security personnel coupled with electronic devices from which to detect, bombs, weapons and prohibited items.
The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 were the most graphic example of the ever-evolving threat of terror attacks against aviation. The attacks demonstrated how civil aircraft could be used as weapons to kill large numbers of civilians and destroy assets on the ground. Since that time governments have created a number of new organizations to direct airport security systems, as well as massive investments in both technology and personnel. Though both airlines and airports have faced challenges resulting from heightened security efforts, the traveling public has been willing to bear them to promote a secure travel environment.
Today, there are several factors affecting the security of global aviation. Technology is rapidly enabling the ability of terror groups and other bad players to inflict large-scale damage. While the capability for such efforts has been confined to a few major nations, such technology is now available to a number of non-state organizations. The merging of cyber and physical capabilities are creating new security issues. One only need to see a virtual reality game to understand how closely simulations can approximate real-world situations. Many systems in civil aviation such as traffic management systems, passport control system, departure control systems, hazardous materials transport and reservation systems are all vulnerable to outside hacking. Computerized aircraft flight systems pose an equally serious threat. GPS navigation systems, fuel control systems, flight control and maintenance only serve to increase the points of cyber vulnerability. As aviation becomes more computerized, human proficiency becomes less effective. Though automated systems are becoming more flexible to handle a variety of situations, minimizing human involvement. However, when humans have less opportunity to practice and develop skills, they become less capable of acting in a timely and appropriate manner when emergencies arise. Perhaps the most vulnerable points in many automated systems are those in which humans interact with automated programs.
However, a number of solutions are available to enhance global flight security. There is currently too much emphasis on molding new problems into existing regulations. As is often the case, by the time new policies are formulated, a new threat has arisen. Global aviation firms should adopt a philosophy of thinking like the terrorist, rather than relying upon yesterday’s doctrine to meet future attacks. In the realm of cybersecurity, firms must enhance their understanding of threats by testing their systems by in-house or outside consultants, tailoring their systems to meet the threats. Firms should cooperate on both cyber and physical security threats, as cooperation makes everyone stronger. Any would be hacker will always probe for the weakest link. Real and potential vulnerabilities should be shared between companies. Finally, airlines need to rethink border security, in the digital sense. While the number of remote attacks has increased in recent years, air safety is improved by a thorough knowledge of passengers – an area in which more capable programs are needed.
Civil aviation is a key element of the global economy and any event, whether accidental or intentional, has a direct bearing on the media. With new technology promoting the rapid transfer of information, it will continue to be a likely target for those who want to cause maximum disruption.