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MH370 CRASH: Ensuring safe skies for billions

Publication Date : 28-03-2014


The disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 three weeks ago has sparked discussion among aviation and security experts about the gaps that exist in airline security and what needs to be done about them.

On March 8, MH370 was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 crew members and passengers on board when air traffic controllers lost contact with the Boeing 777-200ER jet about 50 minutes after take-off at 12:41am.

The authorities believe the plane's communication systems were deliberately shut down and the aircraft taken off its intended path. MH370 flew on for more than six hours after contact with air traffic control was broken.

The plane also continued to transmit electronic "pings" that were picked up by satellite provider Inmarsat. The last signal was captured at 8:11am on the same day it went missing.

By then, as we now know, the aircraft was somewhere over the vast Indian Ocean and almost out of fuel.

With no nearby landing site, the plane is presumed to have plunged into the water. A massive multinational hunt is now on for debris of the plane.

Investigations have revealed that at least two passengers on the ill-fated flight had boarded with stolen passports.

There is also speculation as to whether the captain and co-pilot, alone or in collaboration, deliberately diverted the plane with criminal intent.

Airport security

The incident has prompted tighter security at many airports.

At Changi, there is closer scrutiny of passports. Selected flights - based on risk assessment - are subjected to tighter screening. This includes more thorough checks such as pat-downs for departing passengers.

Such measures will go some way to boost the airport's security, aviation security experts said.

But unless Singapore is prepared to follow the example of Israel, it is not possible to eliminate all risks, said Paul Yap, who headed the aviation security team at Changi Airport before leaving in 2006 to teach at Temasek Polytechnic.

At Israeli airports, travellers turn up four hours before their flights in order to allow time for security and other checks. Families and friends are not allowed to send them off.

For the tiny Jewish state in an Arab world, security comes first. For travellers, however, the price is long queues and inconvenience.

For Changi Airport, which prides itself on its efficient operations, this is not a feasible option. "The key is to strike a balance between the need to ensure secure skies on the one hand and passenger facilitation on the other," Yap said.

Airport Police commander Sam Tee said earlier this week: "Over-security or under-security is equally sinful, and we should not go to the end of each spectrum."

It boils down to risk management, he added.

To stay on top of the game, security agencies must work hand-in-hand with airport operators, airlines and other stakeholders to assess risks.

No single approach

The International Air Transport Association (Iata) - the global voice of airlines - wants to see a tailored security approach based on actual risks. In its view, security cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. So, there is little value in putting all travellers through the same checks, which most countries now do.

Iata is pushing for a more intelligent system that makes better use of technology, such as biometrics, to identify travellers. Biometric passports, which are being rolled out by many countries to replace machine-readable documents, contain a computer chip typically embedded with the passport holder's thumbprint.

Harnessing such technology allows information to be gathered and shared instantly with security service providers.

Travellers can be separated into "known" and "unknown". For example, a country would classify as "known" a traveller whose fingerprint data is in its records.

Such travellers, deemed less risky, can and should be processed quicker. This would allow time and resources to be spent on others with a higher risk.

Passenger profiling, based on intelligence gathering and sharing, is part of this push.

Philip Baum, managing director of Green Light, a London-based aviation security training and consultancy company, said: "We must become more intelligent about the way we make judgments about people based on the potential risk they might pose, instead of being concerned about whether or not they are carrying liquids, gels and aerosols."

Safety in the air

Apart from advance passenger checks and screening on the ground for travellers, it is equally important to secure the plane on the ground and in the air.

From baggage handlers who load bags onto planes to engineers who check on fuel as well as other systems and electronics on board, airport staff must be thoroughly and regularly screened.

Such checks should be done every six months to a year, said air safety experts. There are no international standards, but airports typically screen their staff every six months to two years.

How thorough the checks are now varies from country to country. Global rules should be set and made mandatory.

In the case of MH370, ground staff who had contact with the plane before it left Kuala Lumpur are being questioned by the authorities.

After the September 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, airlines have beefed up cockpit security.

All doors are locked from the inside, and there is a camera so pilots can keep an eye on what goes on in the area just outside and around the cockpit door.

Only cabin crew are allowed into the cockpit to serve meals, or if there is an emergency.

To enter, they must press a call button. The pilots then scan the area outside before they unlock the door.

The question, though, is whether pilots adhere to the rules. Baum said: "There is an incredible amount of complacency within the industry."

Airlines must enforce the rules strictly if they are to be effective, he said.

When cockpits are secured, the assumption is that the pilots are the good guys. But this may not always be true.

Financial woes and other stresses can push a pilot to use the plane to commit suicide.

Pilots, being human, may also become vulnerable to ideological and extremist views and actions. This suggests that measures must be in place to ensure mental health.

Recognising this, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, which oversees civil aviation, issued a circular about a year ago to remind member states to pay attention to this.

The action was taken after a review by the Aerospace Medical Association, which set up a working group on mental health issues.

Dr Philip Scarpa Jr, who led the group, said: "Improved detection and prevention of mental health conditions and life stresses can affect pilots and flight performance, and therefore aviation safety."

Pilot licensing guidelines are determined by a country's aviation regulator. Many regulators require cockpit crew to undergo a medical assessment every six months or yearly, depending on their age.

As part of the check-up, some regulators, including the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, put pilots through a psychiatric evaluation.

This is done through a questionnaire and an interview session. Pilots and the medical fraternity said such checks should be made compulsory and global standards set to guide countries.

Thirteen years after the 9/11 attacks in the US, the tragic end of Flight MH370 has once again put the spotlight on aviation security.

The mystery may never be solved, but lessons must be learnt to ensure safe skies for the billions who fly every year.


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