Security crackdown to hit UK airports
Tuesday 5, January 2010
The most significant changes to British airport security since 2006 will see increased pat-down searches, more sniffer dogs in terminals and a step-up in hand luggage inspections after the government announced its response to the Detroit airline bombing incident.
The home secretary, Alan Johnson, warned that flights face delays as airports adapt to the latest tightening of the regime, which will include singling out passengers for additional scrutiny if they behave suspiciously at some of Britain's biggest airports and the introduction of body scanners at Heathrow within weeks.
Announcing the changes , he said "no single technology" could be 100% effective against "innovative and determined" terrorists. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab nearly brought down Northwest Airlines flight 253 to Detroit on Christmas Day when he set off an explosive device in his underwear, having apparently smuggled the bomb through airport security in Amsterdam and Lagos where his journey began.
"Air passengers are already used to being searched by hand, and having their baggage tested for traces of explosives," said Johnson. "The government will direct airports to increase the proportion of passengers searched in this way. There may be some additional delays as airports adapt, but I am sure the travelling public will appreciate the reasons behind this."
A meeting between Department for Transport officials and airport owners about implementing the changes has been scheduled for [Wednesday]tomorrow, amid strong lobbying from airport and airline owners over the extent to which body and bag searches should be increased. One aviation source warned that relying on increased pat-down searches would be "window dressing", adding: "The government is about to implement measures that will result in long queues at airports but will have no impact on security." The changes could be replicated across Europe as well, with a meeting of security officials from EU states due to take place on Thursday.
BAA, Britain's largest airport operator and the owner of Heathrow, said it supported the use of scanners but did not refer to the increase in body searches. "Body-scanning and other technology will play an important role in enhancing the security process." An increase in the ratio of pat-down searches for passengers in security areas was temporarily imposed in August 2006, after the foiling of a plot to blow up airliners flying out of Heathrow with liquid bombs. The rise in searches helped cause significant delays and some of the security changes remain, including limits on liquids in hand luggage.
The home secretary tried to allay privacy fears over the introduction of full-body scanners at British airports and side-stepped warnings that their use is illegal under child-protection laws. The first machines will be in use at Heathrow within three weeks, alongside those already in use at Manchester and Glasgow but all airports are now expected to have them by the end of the year.
Johnson said they would be used as a "second line of defence" for randomly selected individuals, given there was only a 50% to 60% chance that a full-body scanner would have detected the explosives moulded to Abdulmutallab's body. He said the technology was not a "magic bullet", echoing the argument of airport owners that an effective security regime must comprise of a range of measures, from passenger profiling to x-raying shoes.
Technology that tests swabs taken from hand luggage for traces of explosives will also be made mandatory at all airports by the end of the year. The Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, Chris Huhne, suggested that those with deep-felt privacy objections should be given the chance to opt for a body pat-down search and challenged the home secretary over child porn laws making it illegal to scan under-18s.
But Johnson thought the concerns misplaced: "Given that all the images are destroyed immediately, given that the person responsible for the scanning is completely in a separate room … they're important considerations but I think we can actually ensure that those who do have worries can have those concerns satisfied."
Manchester airport, which is testing body scanner technology, mocked up Abdulmutallab's device on a volunteer recently and spotted it using a scanner. Airport owners hope terminals with body scanners will be able to scale down the extra body searches, which they claim are time-consuming and exhaust staff.
Johnson said BAA, which also owns airports at Stansted, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Southampton, has started training security staff in "behavioural analysis techniques" that allow them to spot passengers who pose a potential threat and subject them to additional searches.
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