While airports are designed to filter out possible threats before planes become airborne, it is impossible to catch all attackers before they board. Several solutions on the market watch for possible attacks and reduce threats.
Most aviation security is located in the terminal, working to prevent anything or anyone dangerous from boarding on planes. However, in the event that someone does slip through, there are security measures to put the brakes on an attack.
The risk of an onboard act of violence is a real one. Terrorism holds the focus for the majority of security solutions onboard planes.
"The significance of terrorism is self-evident, but can be greatly reduced if the would-be hijackers are prevented from gaining access to the flight deck," said Mike Horne, Managing Director of AD Aerospace. "Passenger aircraft worldwide have lockable reinforced cockpit doors, but this must be opened on occasion, especially on longer flight when the cabin crew needs to take refreshments to the flight crew or one of the pilots needs to take a toilet break. To increase security in these situations, aviation authorities across Europe and much of Asia (shortly to include China) has required a means to view the area outside the cockpit door from the pilots' station."
While terrorists are the most prominent threats, passengers suffering from air rage cannot be overlooked either. "Air rage offers a threat to the aircraft primarily to the safety of passengers, who may be injured by an individual who has lost control either due to drunkenness or some other cause, but this can in extreme cases threaten the aircraft itself as when people have attempted to open external doors," Horne said. "The primary defense against this is well trained cabin crew and occasionally passengers who can act to defuse a situation or physically control people."
Theft of baggage or cargo poses another risk. Horne said that while baggage contents could be removed at any time, a common time for thieves to strike is while baggage is being loaded or unloaded from the cargo hold. "Here an unscrupulous baggage handler feels they are hidden from sight and able to do what they like," he said. "However airlines are beginning to fit covert video recording systems to baggage holds."
Eyes in the Sky
Watching for suspicious behavior once passengers are onboard is achieved with in-flight surveillance. They store evidence and ensure flight staffs don't miss a thing.
"It is possible for a passenger airliner to be outfitted with video cameras throughout the passenger cabin, which could be used to monitor passenger activity, possibly enabling intervention before an incident gets too serious, or even to have recording capabilities so that video footage can be used to prove what happened," Horne said.
This requires stringent testing for surveillance equipment to ensure it can withstand the rigors of flight, as well as not electronically interfering with other equipment onboard. "All equipment to be used on aircraft must use materials which have been approved for aviation use, such as aircraft grade aluminum, and have undergone specific tests, such as fire resistance and other factors," Horne said. "This is all done to ensure the safety of an aircraft but does increase the cost of the equipment.
A cross-section of surveillance and biometrics is seen in a European Union pilot. The Security of Aircraft in the Future European Environment (SAFEE) project placed cameras behind passenger seats, along with wide-angle cameras, to watch passengers exhibiting nervousness. This included sweating profusely, along with several other anxious behaviors, before flight staff were alerted. Multiple signs of nervousness ensure the person is actually on edge and reduce the number of false alarms.
As this is not strictly biometrics identifying individuals based on what they do, rather than who they are ,this is called intent recognition. "Can you predict earlier, before a person gets on the plane, if that person has malicious intentions?" said Victor Lee, Senior Consultant for the International Biometric Group. "There can be problems. Is the person nervous because they've never flew before or nervous because they're going to blow up the plane? That kind of extension of biometrics is a new challenge."
While there is no way to prepare for a terrorist attack, knowing what behaviors are suspicious and what measures should be taken can reduce threats. Flight crews can know proper procedures, while passengers can take the right precautions to deal with dangerous situations.
"It is imperative that cabin crew continuously receive training to ensure that they are vigilant to safety and security concerns," said Kenneth Chan, Research Analyst and Marie-France Mann, Consultant, Frost & Sullivan. "Every passenger's accrued vigilance can be a benefit to ensuring safety and security. Educating passengers are one of several ways to increase vigilance."
Checking on Bags
Preventing baggage and cargo theft is a goal of several solutions. They range from using fingerprints to ensure bags are matched correctly, to monitoring planes at all times.
"Some have approached the baggage reconciliation regulations by manual identity checks and other have taken new technology into work," said Steen Munch Schmidt, Director Solution Sales at Precise Biometrics Solutions. "Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has solved it by introducing fingerprint recognition as the means of identification for a passenger checking in baggage. At the check-in desk, the passenger is enrolling his fingerprint and then at the boarding gate, the passenger is matching his/her finger and when verified, he/she is boarded. There is no need for boarding cards, no need for ID checks."
Covert monitoring of cargo holds watch over cargo and baggage, wherever the destination. AD Aerospace's solution operates when the cargo bay doors are open and allows airline security to retrieve images after flights, Horne said. "Although aimed primarily at theft from baggage or cargo, this can be used to spot smuggling of drugs or other contraband items."
As planes are prime targets for attack, security will be an essential part of aviation. While acts of terrorism are rare, the effect they have goes far beyond the loss of life and property. Other in-flight problems of theft or baggage theft are less severe, but common and inconvenient. Improved onboard security promises to reduce these issues and keep the flying public safe.