Yemen incident highlights airport security risk

Yemen incident highlights airport security risk

Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Broadcast: 04/11/2010
Reporter: Peter Lloyd

Security experts say packages with explosive devices that were discovered on cargo planes headed to the US from Yemen highlight a serious problem in Australian aviation security.


TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Earlier this week the issue of airport security hit the headlines when it was discovered that two packages with explosive devices were found on cargo planes headed to the United States from Yemen in the Middle East.

Security experts here say the discovery highlights what they say is a serious gap in Australian aviation security. Peter Lloyd has this report.

PETER LLOYD, REPORTER: Air freight is a $28 billion business. Eighty per cent is carried in the belly of passenger planes flying into and out of Australia.
Passengers in the cabin are subjected to rigorous X-ray security checks, but disturbingly little attention is paid to what’s being carried underneath.

How much freight is X-rayed?

ROGER HENNING, AVIATION SECURITY EXPERT: Very little. There is no available statistics on this. Having been involved with two of the world’s biggest air freight companies, I’m very conscious of the fact that it’s all about expediency, being able to track where the package is, and profitability.

PETER LLOYD: The major operators include Australian Air Express, jointly owned by Qantas and Australia Post and international companies like Federal Express and DHL.

Aviation security expert Roger Henning believes the lack of security screening by these companies is nothing short of a scandal.

ROGER HENNING: It’s hit and miss. You’ve got more chance of winning at Crown Casino than you have of finding a bomb in this system that’s going through a freight system onto an aeroplane.

PETER LLOYD: The Federal Department of Infrastructure and Transport is in charge of the system that regulates air cargo. It is a system, say insiders, that makes very few demands on cargo handlers.

TONY SHELDON, TRANSPORT WORKERS UNION: There are not specific requirements. It says very broadly that you’re supposed to do a risk assessment, without saying what the risk assessment requires specifically to be done.

There is continual buck-passing about how the act applies. There are holes through it that literally you could drive a Mack truck through. Unfortunately, literally you could fly a plane through it.

PETER LLOYD: Lateline has received specific allegations of how little security checking is done at Australian Air Express.

This is a statutory declaration based on statements from current employees who say, “… the X-ray scanning machine was hardly ever used,” and that, “… the vast majority of packages arrive in a delivery truck, are then placed straight into a can and the can is then put straight onto a plane.”

In response, the company said it complies with the rules laid down by government and that it takes security seriously.

TONY SHELDON: What’s particularly critical of the Australian Air Express is that it carries the bulk of domestic and international parcels around this country. They operate from many, many different operators – courier companies that are here today gone tomorrow or could be somebody carrying a parcel that has a bomb in it.

PETER LLOYD: For years, government and freight companies have argued against regulations that call for 100 per cent screening of cargo. The industry’s peak body declined an invitation to speak about the issue, but said in a statement it would present significant logistics and process problems, plus make cargo more costly.

ROGER HENNING: The major cargo companies, the global cargo companies, are extremely profitable. So there isn’t any real reason for them to have neglected this for so long.

PETER LLOYD: But, behind the scenes, the industry and regulators are talking about just that: 100 per cent cargo screening.

This is a confidential report to government on aviation freight security prepared a year ago by the Freight and Logistics Council of NSW. It lays bare the threat, saying, “… the attractiveness of freight as an attack enabler may grow … particularly owing to the high proportion of freight carried on passenger aircraft.”

It recommends the Government and industry, “… should work together to develop initial contingency plans for the rapid introduction of 100 per cent screening for air freight, which may become necessary if an attack against a passenger aircraft using air freight occurs.”

In other words, action following on from tragedy.

TONY SHELDON: It is absolutely clear that if something goes wrong, that people that influence and set the agenda, the big end of town, that it’s adamant that they do not want security arrangements that costs them anything on their bottom line, that blood will be on their hands when something goes wrong.

PETER LLOYD: Now if you think you’ve heard all this before, you’d be right. This is the Wheeler report commissioned in 2005 by the then Howard Government. It’s a review of airport security by one of the world’s top aviation security experts. It runs to 164 pages and recommendation number 25 is that all cargo should be screened on all aircraft.

TONY SHELDON: What’s happened with that report under successive governments is nothing. The aviation industry blew it up. They said that this is going to cost us time, money and resources.

PETER LLOYD: The discovery at the weekend of devices on planes heading to Chicago may give impetus for more stringent regulations for checking cargo. For the time being though, the only change is that in-bound cargo from Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Qatar must now be screened using X-ray or explosive trace detection technology.

ROGER HENNING: We are a reactive country. When it comes to government, we wait until things happen instead of mitigating the risk.

PETER LLOYD: Peter Lloyd, Lateline.

TONY JONES: And Lateline’s sent a list of questions on cargo security to the Department of Infrastructure and Transport yesterday. We still haven’t had a response.

Do you have a comment or a story idea? Get in touch with the Lateline team by clicking here.


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