Airport security in Australia: Why are the rules different between domestic and international flights?

Is our airport security good enough?

The recent arrest of suspects in Sydney allegedly planning to plant an explosive device aboard an aircraft, possibly concealed in a meat grinder, throws up some compelling questions.

In the immediate aftermath of the arrests, security at Australia's major airports was ramped up with enhanced screening of passengers and baggage. Police and security staff were present in large numbers and departing passengers were advised to arrive two hours before departure for domestic flights, three in the case of international flights. Long queues resulted from the enhanced security screening, leading to chaotic scenes at major airports.

Given that this happened after the suspects had been arrested, was this necessary? Was it a public relations exercise staged to reassure travellers? Or perhaps a tacit admission that the authorities charged with maintaining the safety of airline passengers are not confident in the normal security procedures?

Calm, and normality, would be more reassuring, a message that there is no need for concern, the security screening measures in place are working as they should.

Since 2007, travellers departing Australia on international flights have been restricted to a maximum container size of 100ml for LAG items in their carry-ons, but no such restriction applies for domestic air travellers.

While the government talks tough about airport security, and those body scanners are an impressive piece of kit even though they come up with a false positive about half the time in my case, there are some surprising gaps.

One of the disparities between domestic and international air travel regards the lack of passenger identification for domestic air travellers. It would be perfectly feasible to check in for a domestic flight using an alias, and there's no guarantee that the person who checked in is the one boarding the aircraft, however, airline employees do have the right to ask for identification under the airline's conditions of carriage.

In fact, that's exactly what happened according to this story from the Newcastle Herald, which reports that a man recently allowed his friend to fly to the Gold Coast under the man's name, knowing he wouldn't be asked to prove his identity.

Slightly more reassuring, if a passenger who has checked in does not board their flight their baggage will be unloaded whether it's a domestic or an international flight, a federal requirement according to a spokesperson for Virgin Australia.

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Another disparity concerns the carriage of liquids, aerosols and gels, so-called LAG items. Since 2007, travellers departing Australia on international flights have been restricted to a maximum container size of 100 millilitres for LAG items in their carry-ons, but no such restriction applies for domestic air travellers. Australia's security regulator for aviation transport is the Office of Transport Security in the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development.

According to that office, "The Australian government does not apply LAGs restrictions to domestic flights in Australia. This is because Australia's aviation security arrangements are based on an intelligence-led assessment of risk. Aircraft departing for international destinations from Australia are exposed to a variety of risks that are not present, or are less pronounced, in the domestic context." There you have it.

In an alarming revelation from the Sydney arrests last weekend, early indications suggest that the alleged perpetrators had connections within the aviation industry, possibly including workers at Sydney Airport, that might have allowed them access to aircraft servicing areas.

The possibility of terrorists using sympathetic friends or relations with access to aircraft to plant a device on board has been known for some time.

In a submission to the 2014 Australian Aviation Safety Regulation Review, Roger Henning, founder and CEO of Homeland Security Asia/Pacific, identified a number of shortcomings in airport security. This review took place in the lead-up to the G20 meeting of world leaders that Australia hosted that year, a time of heightened security concerns. One of the principal objectives of the review was "to investigate the structures, effectiveness and processes of all agencies involved in aviation safety".

Henning's submission noted "All Australian commercial airports remain easy to access and vulnerable soft targets for terrorists and extremists …This leaves airports wide open to the risk of closures and damage to infrastructure and aircraft, should a major incident occur ...The airport workplace and public safety remains a massive hole in Australia's approach to aviation safety."

In considered detail, Henning's submission outlined seven recommendations, including enhanced screening of all airport employees, banning the practice of using casual, untrained baggage handlers not cleared by ASIO, identification of all domestic as well as international travellers prior to boarding and in particular, a focus on human intelligence, "the value and engagement of all members of an airport workforce … to detect, report and mitigate safety/security risks".

Asked whether the holes in airport security that he identified in his submission still exist, Henning says "none have been plugged".

In response to the question "who does airport security best?", Henning nominates Tel Aviv and Singapore.

Tel Aviv is a worthy study, and one that relies heavily on the element of human intelligence that Henning advocates. Nowhere is more security-conscious than the state of Israel. The very fact that there has been no successful penetration of the city's Ben Gurion Airport's security protocols since the Japanese Red Army assault of 45 years ago on Lod Airport, as Ben Gurion was known at the time, underlines the effectiveness of its methodology.

The details of exactly how the state of Israel goes about maintaining airport security is a closely guarded secret, but a trip through Tel Aviv Airport is revealing.

Any vehicle approaching the airport is stopped at a security checkpoint, drivers and passengers are questioned and vehicles might be inspected. Before the traveller enters the terminal building they may be subject to a random inspection by an armed guard. Passengers are monitored constantly by security cameras. Once inside the terminal, the passenger will pass through another checkpoint and could be asked to activate their phone, laptop and other electronic devices. Social media and email accounts might be checked. All luggage is passed through an X-ray scanner. The passenger is then interviewed by a security officer, which could be either brief or intensive. At the end of this interview a yellow sticker is attached to the passenger's passport with a number between one and six at the beginning, indicating the assessed level of security risk. The passenger is then able to check in, after which luggage will be X-rayed once again, followed by a final security clearance or a much more rigorous session with security officials.

It's highly effective, but would the Israeli methods work for Australia?

These methods are invasive, rigorous and time consuming, and leave many travellers feeling bruised, and psychologically violated in some cases. That's not what you want in any airport where the threat level is far lower than at Ben Gurion Airport.

But nor do you want the casual workforce that exists at some of Australia's major airports, not screened by our expensive and ever-more-abundant security operatives, with free access to passengers' baggage and aircraft interiors.

See also: What it's like to spend 24-hours straight at the world's best airport

See also: The cheapest ways to get to airports in Australia

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