Aviation security is an area where it seems that we’re always playing catch-up, tweaking the measures in accordance with the latest incident. This reactive attitude is precisely where the bans on liquids and more recently electronics in the cabin stem from. AeroTime talked with aviation security expert Philip Baum about the need to take a proactive stance and train staff to spot potential hijackers.

You recently authored a book called Violence in the Skies: A History of Aircraft Hijacking and Bombing. What would you like to share about it?

I always had an interest in aviation security, probably because I grew up on the flight path into London Heathrow. I remember, as a child, looking out from my bedroom window, watching aircraft from around the world lowering their landing gears on their final approach. I grew up in the 60s and 70s, a period of time when there were numerous hijackings, primarily of American jets in Europe; in the aftermath of the Six-Day War 1967 between Israel and its Arab neighbours, we saw Palestinian groups use hijacking as a tactic in order to make their case to the international community. That was headline news at the time and impacted me significantly.


I never planned a career in aviation security but I was certainly interested in it. Many years later I actually found myself working in aviation security at London Heathrow. I worked through different levels of management there and eventually went into training, always fascinated by the human story behind each incident. I was less interested in the quantity of explosives, the number of firearms or aircraft type, but always sought to establish what motivated somebody to take such desperate measures as to hijack an aircraft. Many of the stories are indeed fascinating. There are high-profile cases that we’re all familiar with, like the Lockerbie bombing or 9/11 attacks, but, of course, there are many more incidents that have happened throughout the years. Some of them are – in retrospect – almost amusing, albeit no doubt scary for all those involved at the time.

It seems like in the past more cases of hijacking were carried out by people trying to flee oppressive regimes, like the Soviet Union. Why so?

The majority of hijackings over the years have either been perpetrated by people wishing to escape, to claim asylum elsewhere or people with psychological issues. Terrorism has never been the number one rationale for the hijacking of aircraft. If you look at the history of hijacking in China or the former Soviet Union, or even some places in the Middle East today, a lot of the hijackings have been perpetrated in order to escape. Nationals of these countries were often permitted to purchase tickets on domestic flights but carried no passport or permit for international travel; by hijacking a flight they could turn a cheap, domestic journey into a passport to perceived greener pastures.

Are the people that attempt hijacking nowadays not afraid of getting caught or even executed?

When people are feeling truly desperate, they are prepared to go to extreme measures. Let’s take the Sudan Airways hijacking of 1996 when some Iraqi diplomats were being summoned back to Baghdad from Sudan. They knew that if they went back to Iraq, they would likely be executed because they had upset the Saddam regime. They decided to hijack their own airliner to London. Now they live in London - they succeeded in achieving their goal. A lot of people hijacked aircraft from the US to Cuba, or from Cuba to the US; sometimes there was a political reason, sometimes criminal intent, sometimes a mix of both with a psychological element there as well. People believed it was achievable and were aware they might die in the process. Like any soldier in a war. You know your objective, you hope that you will survive but there is a high risk involved.

Getting back to your book, who is it intended for? The broad reader or specialists in aviation security like yourself?

It was written for the general public. It is not a detailed analysis of each case. The publishers requested something accessible to the mass market, given the fact that there is a major interest in aviation, and the media love to cover aviation disasters and aviation security stories. That said, anybody working within the aviation industry would relate to, and be interested in, the cases covered.

Talking about the post-9/11 the world, do you think the measures used in airports today are sufficient to stop hijackings and bombings from happening?

No. I think that they present a significant deterrence factor that should never be underestimated. Deterring people from committing acts of unlawful interference in civil aviation is very important, but I have long felt that we invest too much in technology, and not enough in human intuition. We love our X-ray machines and our archway metal detectors that were introduced in the 1960s as a result of Cuban hijackings. Still, you go anywhere in the world and people have to walk through an archway metal detector. They do what it says on the box – they detect metal and only metal. They do not detect wood or carbon or glass or even explosives. That weakness can be exploited.

Passing airport security can be stressful. You will probably forget to remove your belt or have too big a bottle of shampoo in your carry-on. Happens to all of us, but what if you have to pass through a body scanner? Will thoughts of radiation risks haunt you throughout your journey? What about the possibility of the operator saving a snap of your naked body? Get ready to learn the secrets behind the mysterious machines that see through your clothes, the main question being – do they actually work?

Take the famous case of David Mark Robinson who attempted to hijack a Qantas flight going from Melbourne to Launceston in Tasmania in 2003. He used two wooden stakes that he had concealed in his pocket. He knew that the archway metal detector would not pick them up. Terrorists, criminals or – in David Mark Robinson’s case – someone psychologically disturbed (he wanted to crash the plane into the Wall of Jerusalem National Park, because that’s where the Devil lives!) – are able to think their way around existing technology.

It still really troubles me that there is so much resistance to profiling and behavioural analysis when it comes to airport security. Yet, every other security agency in the world uses profiling and behavioural analysis techniques, even other security agencies at airports use it! When we arrive in foreign countries, we go through passport control, and immigration offices usually have two lanes – one for nationals and one for others. They treat us differently when we go through customs overseas. They do not screen everybody, just the people they want to focus on. And every day at airports around the world they identify people doing things wrong. When it comes to airport security – before people get on a flight – we are not allowed to do that. Suddenly, everyone needs to be treated the same. That is not good security. Good security is based partly on deterrence, partly on using technology, but doing so intelligently, rather than just making it predictable which plays into the hands of terrorists, criminals and the psychologically disturbed individuals.

When you talk about profiling, I imagine it being more complicated than plain racial profiling. You are talking about a certain set of rules a trained professional should follow. What are these rules?

This is the problem that regulators have. They like the idea of profiling but it is very difficult to regulate because it is a subjective process. It’s not based on a certain quantity of metal or explosives causing an alarm. It is based on the gut feeling, the intuition of the person working at the airport. I do not, and I want to emphasise this, I do not agree with racial profiling at all. I think it is not only not good security, not only unfair security, I actually think it is fundamentally wrong. Even if you are looking for Islamic fundamentalists, they are not all born Muslim or have a ‘traditional’ appearance. Terrorist organisations are actively using people who have converted and who do not fit that stereotype. Even the Israelis, when they introduced the profiling system, learnt very quickly that they should not focus their attention exclusively on Arab passengers, because they had, in the early 1970s, the Lod Airport massacre carried out by Japanese nationals. They weren’t looking for Japanese people.

We do need to accept the fact that anyone can be a threat. This is why I take issue with the American authorities saying that certain people are trusted if they are over a certain age. I don’t think that somebody over 70 or 75, or even over 80 is necessarily guaranteed to be no threat, nor is someone under 18 or even under 15. I think anybody can be a threat and anybody can be duped as well. What we need to do is to look at people’s appearance, behaviour and background, and start to share information.

Take, for example, the underlying reason for our failure to identify the ‘Underpants Bomber’ – Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab – and his attempt to bring down a Northwest flight. The intel was there but it wasn’t shared. To this day we don’t share information with airport screeners. If you are working at an airport security checkpoint, the only thing you can look at is how that passenger presents, and what’s in their bag. You don’t get any ticket information, you don’t get any background information about the individual. Unless we can start to allow people involved in security screening process to access all the relevant information we’re just going to hope that we are a little bit lucky and we’ll be able to pick up people solely on the basis of signs of stress. And that is not enough…

Profuse sweating is a sign of stress, but what we know about the 21st century terrorist is that they’re generally not sweating profusely. Often they are people who are highly trained and extremely committed to their cause. It’s not going to be the person with exaggerated body movements. It’s going to be the way that person interacts with people he is travelling with and the world around him. The one thing that is extremely hard is to plan is to be that absolutely normal European family going for a vacation to, say, Zakynthos in the Mediterranean. Or the business traveler going off to New York. Or the backpackers going to travel around Thailand in South East Asia. For these types, there are expected baseline behaviours and it’s extremely difficult to blend in perfectly – not impossible, but far harder to do so that to plot one’s way around the limitations of the technologies we deploy.

Do you think the public should be informed about these signs? For the traveler to see the signs before the officer. Or would it just cause unnecessary chaos at airports?

First of all, there is no definitive list of suspicious signs. I give courses on behavioural analysis and my company, Green Light, has its own method called T.R.A.P. (Tactical Risk Assessment of People) and we express the fact that there is no definitive list of indicators; you have to decide what you are looking for. For example, when we’re teaching flight attendants, we spend a lot of time talking to them not only about identifying a hijacker but also about the indicators for an unruly passenger. We are also trying to persuade airlines to spend more energy and effort to try to identify potential victims of human trafficking or, indeed, the traffickers themselves.

Depending on who you are looking for, there are going to be different indicators. Generally, you’re talking about identifying to what extent any person – not only the passengers, but the airport employees, pilots, flight attendants and even the airport screeners themselves – meets our baseline expectations of behaviour. For every route and each time of the year, there are different expectations. If you are a flight attendant operating a flight from Vilnius to Moscow, you know what types of passengers fly on that route. It is probably different during Saturday afternoon to Monday morning. Getting people to tune into things that are normal to them and report abnormal things is better than wasting a huge amount of time screening everybody for everything.

Instead of looking for bad things, we should look for negative intent. We should get rid of silly restrictions on liquids, aerosols and gels. Normal law-abiding citizens are having their liquid products taking away from them for no valid reasons. The same applies for not being able to travel with laptops on certain routes. I know there is intel behind these decisions, but I think there are better ways to manage the threats.

What is your opinion about the technological solutions currently used in airports around the world?

I often speak publicly on the need to focus on human factors and to employ behavioural analysis. That doesn’t mean that I’m against technology. Some of the technology used at airports is extremely valuable if we use it intelligently. For example, body scanners, which we started introducing as a result of the ‘Underpants Bomber’ incident. It always takes an incident for us to implement the latest technology. We’re always playing catch-up. We’re always reactive. We need to start being proactive and think about the threats we face.

We have bought body scanners, but have we bought the right ones? I don’t think so. I think we ended up compromising our security processes by deploying the kind of scanners using millimetre-wave imaging, which can see beneath clothing but can’t see inside the body. So, if you look at customs organisations, they’re not using this technology; they use transmission X-ray to see whether or not a drug trafficker has actually stuffed their body with something or has swallowed narcotics to conceal them. They get away with it because they are not screening everyone using this technology. They screen people they are concerned about. That’s what, I think, we should be doing when it comes to airport security.

We’d like for there to be a 100% security but there is no such thing. Just to illustrate this, think about a prison anywhere in the world. They are highly secure establishments where they have no concerns about visitor experience or the time it takes to screen people. They are not trying to keep people happy and they are definitely trying to keep weapons and illicit goods outside. Yet, the reality is there are weapons and drugs in pretty much every prison in the world. If you can get drugs and weapons into prisons, you can get things through airport security as well. Especially when we have to worry so much about the customer experience and minimum wait times.

We need to start thinking of a more intelligent way to deliver security, so we can respond to the threats of the future; take, for example, the body-bomb, something that worries me considerably. Or even the chemical or biological weapon that could be used on board. Air crews around the world are trained to manage a biological or chemical incident on board an aircraft. It is only logical, therefore, that if we’re training people to manage such incidents inflight, we should also actually tell our airport staff that they have to identify somebody that could be in possession of chemical, biological, radiological or potentially even nuclear device as well. I’m afraid we’re not going to start looking for such weaponry until an incident takes place.

Philip Baum is the author of ‘Violence in the Skies: a history of aircraft hijacking and bombing’, published by Summersdale and available on www.amazon.com. He is also the Managing Director of London-based security training and consultancy company, Green Light Ltd. (www.avsec.com) and the Editor-in-Chief of ‘Aviation Security International’.