How secure can we make air travel?

Kai Ryssdal Aug 16, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: In the end, there was no screwdriver. No vaseline. And no notes about Al Qaeda. But United flight 923 from London to Washington’s Dulles Airport still didn’t make it all the way today. The plane landed in Boston after a passenger had a panic attack. It turned into a major security alert. Even though screening in the U.K. and Europe is the toughest it’s ever been.

Top European law-enforcement officials met today to talk about working together. Allen Hatcher runs the International School for Security and Explosives Education in the U.K. I asked him whether more coordination would do any good.

ALLEN HATCHER: The thing is, Kai, we’ve already got a system. We have got legislation in place with the ICAO Convention documents of 2002.

RYSSDAL: ICAO is the civil aviation standards.

HATCHER: Yeah, it’s the International Civil Aviation Organization, which the US is signed . . . 183 countries are signed up to it. So, all we have to do is make sure that we operate in line with that legislation. If we were to do that, if we were also to train our security guards and invest some money in the training for the security staffs, than it would probably increase our security.

RYSSDAL: What we have to do is get the Brits, and the Germans, and the French, and the Portugues and everybody to agree on something and then it has to go up through another layer of politics, through the European Union and the European Commission.

HATCHER: Correct. We’ve seen this since 9/11. It’s like the fabled pebble in the water. We get these ripples that keep going out and out and out. We can’t even get our own parties in this country to agree on something. How on earth we’re going to expect to pull together 25 countries in the European Union?

RYSSDAL: What is, in your mind, the biggest obstacle to standardizing aviation security protocols?

HATCHER: Money. Because the standards that you could put in place at LAX, for example, you could throw lots of money at it. The smaller, national airports in America, can they afford to put in place the same sort of high-tech equipment that’s required can they afford to pay for the best training for the security guards?

RYSSDAL: If you had $100 billion, could you make it completely safe?

HATCHER: No. You, in America, spent billions of dollars already. The weak point in any security system is the human being. If you have security people who are paid minimum wage, and someone comes up to them and says, “We’ll give you $50,000 if you put this onboard the aircraft, and nobody will ever know you’ve done it, they’re likely to do it.”

RYSSDAL: Aviation, obviously, is a business. Security is a business. But when you put those two together you come up with this thing that economists call a nonproductive cost. You know, adding Security doesn’t get you to where you’re going any faster.

HATCHER: Correct. It’s not just the aviation industry, Kai. This is across . . . I do security consultantcy, security audits for large companies in London. And we try to explain to them that they go down for a day, they lose millions of dollars. And, yet, they’re not willing to invest in the security aspect. Because, they play the percentages.

RYSSDAL: You know, there’s been some talk over here, Mr. Hatcher, of the government assuming a greater and greater part of the cost of aviation security. Do you think that would smooth the way over there?

HATCHER: No. Because it wouldn’t happen. The U.K. taxpayer’s had enough already. I think what will happen is what happened post-9/11, in that a lot of aviation companies will start losing money again.

RYSSDAL: Allen Hatcher runs the International School for Security and Explosives Education over in Salisbury, in the U.K. Mr. Hatcher, thank you for your time.

HATCHER: No problem, Kai.

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