Has Covid-19 knocked terrorism off aviation’s most-feared threat list?

Terrorism remains a major threat to aviation security, but with the Covid-19 pandemic discussion has turned more towards dealing with threats to global health. Ilaria Grasso Macola finds out how the concept of threat has developed in aviation security and whether terror threats will be replaced by health threats.

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As one of his first orders of business after being elected, US President Joe Biden reversed Executive Order 13769, also known as the Muslim Ban, which was implemented by the Trump administration in 2017.

The Muslim Ban, which banned foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries – including Somalia, Syria and Iran – from entering the US, was created under the guise of improving national security, stemming from a post-9/11 approach to aviation security.

While the Muslim Ban’s potential benefits are yet to be assessed, the US – alongside other countries – has implemented travel bans, forbidding entrance on US soil to foreign nationals to avoid the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the world still grapples with coronavirus a year in the pandemic, how has the focus of aviation security changed?

9/11: a watershed moment in aviation security

Aviation security as we have come to know it is a product of recent times. According to Francesco Ragni, senior lecturer of aviation management at Buckinghamshire New University, security was relatively relaxed before 9/11.

“With the way we used to travel up until the 90s, you had paper tickets that were like bank cheques because they had your name on it but no one would control who you were, and there was no need to present any ID for national flights,” he explains.

“With international flights, there were passport control procedures but they were done by countries’ border patrols, not by the airlines, because they assumed that if you showed up and had the ticket [it was you, not someone else].”

As for baggage checks, the situation differed from airport to airport but, generally speaking, only hold luggage would get screened, while carry-ons passed unobserved.

When 9/11 happened, [airport security] all of a sudden became something that had to be there.

However, the situation started to change even before the attack on the World Trade Center.  In December 1988, a bomb concealed in a radio cassette player went off on a Pan Am flight from London to New York, killing all 259 passengers and crew.

“It was a build-up from a number of cases,” Ragni says. “Most international airports started to introduce security [checks] but it wasn’t mandatory and it was not implemented everywhere.

“But of course when 9/11 happened, [airport security] all of a sudden became something that had to be there.”

Among the measures introduced were baggage and personal checks, as well as the reinforcement of cockpit doors, which at all times had to be locked, and training flight attendants to protect the cockpit. In the US specifically, the attacks led to the creation of the Transportation Security Administration and a strengthening of air marshals’ numbers.

“The industry was not caught unprepared because of precedents such as the Pan Am incident and for ten/15 years it had been investing in [aviation security].”

The Muslim Ban: credible threats or populist politics?

The need to implement security in airports and aboard planes also led to some controversial practices and policies such as racial profiling, which appears to target mainly people of Middle Eastern or non-white heritage.

As reported by the New York Times in 2016, even though there is no definitive data on whether American Muslims are subjected to more scrutiny at airports because of their appearance, many organisations raised their concerns regarding such practices.

“For individuals to have to modify behaviour or be concerned before they are travelling about what they may wear or what they may say, is problematic,” Oakland-based Muslim Advocates official Brenda F. Abdelall told the paper.

We have no way to know if [the lack of attacks] was because the ban was actually effective or not.

Things came to a head in 2017, when then President Trump introduced the Muslim Ban. Justified by the Trump administration as a step-up of national and aviation security, the ban – which in 2020 involved 13 Muslim majority countries – was highly contested as discriminatory and politically motivated.

Four years later, its merits, if any, still need to be assessed. “The ban was supposedly based on intelligence that people in those countries were planning attacks, but no attacks happened,” explains Ragni.

“We have no way to know if [the lack of attacks] was because the ban was actually effective or not, but all the circumstances suggest that there was a political element as well.”

Covid-19 and new security measures in aviation

Since its beginning, the Covid-19 pandemic posed economic and security threats to the global aviation industry. Because of the global halt in international air travel, passenger numbers dropped and people became more afraid of getting on a plane, as happened after 9/11.

To address new and Covid-19-specific security concerns, the industry has come up with different solutions, specifically focusing on testing and vaccination programmes.

According to International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) aviation security and facilitation deputy director Sylvain Lefoyer, the organisation has introduced new security requirements to ensure operational and regulatory certainty.

Writing for International Airport Review, Lefoyer explained that the guidelines developed by the organisation were designed to assist stakeholders in the compliance of security provisions, maintaining a high level of alert at all costs.

“Aviation is, and will continue to remain, a target of choice for terrorists,” he wrote. “It is for those reasons that efforts and resources should be directed to closely monitor threat levels (especially those related to air cargo and insider threat), while vulnerabilities arisen as a result of current disruptions should be reduced as much as practicable, both in time and scope.”

Airlines are partnering with medical companies to find new solutions.

Apart from resorting to technology to guarantee social distancing and avoid contacts, the industry has implemented several ways to address Covid-19 security concerns.

“Airlines are partnering with medical companies to find new solutions, implementing protocols that we usually see in hospitals and places like that,” adds Ragni. “And this is having a [positive] impact especially in low-cost airlines that are doing a better job at cleaning in order to reassure customers.”

Whilst some airlines took to social media, showing passengers how Covid-19 security norms were applied, others such as Etihad have already vaccinated its entire workforce of pilots and cabin crew.

“You can get on one of [Etihad’s] fights with the confidence that the people serving you and flying the plane are vaccinated, possibly carrying less risk of infecting you.”

Looking towards a post-Covid-19 future

Despite the many differences between the two situations, people in the industry look at 9/11 as a precedent for the industry.

“More than a lesson is the fact that everyone has been looking at 9/11 as an example of a situation where the industry was on its knees with people believing that we would never fly again, but it bounced back.”

I don’t think there’s a possibility of security and safety being neglected.

Ragni is not the only one to believe the industry will get back on its feet. “I think there’s an insatiable demand for people to travel,” former American Airlines chief executive Donald Carty told the Financial Times. “I think people will be anxious for a while but if we get a vaccine, people will be back to normal in a year.”

As for Covid-19 replacing terrorism as aviation’s biggest threat, experts have no doubt.

“I don’t think there’s a possibility of security and safety being neglected and going back to the old days,” Ragni concludes. “What is going to happen is that the we will fly will change and the industry will keep more sanitisation protocols and we’re going to continue focus on both things.”