Aviation security in an increasingly complex environment

Protecting aviation from the evolving terror threat.

Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon


Thank you.

And good morning.

This 3 day conference is debating many of the big issues facing the aviation industry today.

And there are none more important than security.

Protecting air passengers from the ever-evolving threat of terrorism.

So I’m grateful to have this opportunity to talk about maintaining security in an increasingly complex environment.

Aviation-related terrorism is nothing new.

The first recorded aircraft hijack took place in 1931 by revolutionaries in Peru.

And just 2 years after that, an American aircraft was destroyed by a bomb thought to have been planted by Chicago gangsters.

But it’s a sad fact that aviation remains an iconic target for terrorist groups today, offering them the potential for massive publicity while also causing huge damage to our economy and well-being.

As a result, aviation security remains an issue of the utmost importance for the international community.

Staying ahead

What’s clear is that as terrorists continue to innovate, our protective measures have to stay on their coat tails, and where possible get ahead.

We all remember the case of Richard Reid, who tried to detonate explosives concealed in his shoes.

In 2006, there was a major plot to blow up several trans-Atlantic flights using explosives concealed in drinks bottles.

Further attempts included a bomb hidden in a terrorist’s underwear in 2009, and the printer cartridge bomb in 2010.

We all owe a debt of gratitude to the many people in the security services, airport staff and police who have helped foil terror attacks over the past decade.

Their professionalism and dedication – often unsung - has been remarkable.

And I know it will continue.

Because terror groups will continue to target aviation.

And we know they will continue to design devices to evade detection at the airport security checkpoint.

This creates a challenge for governments, and a challenge for the research community.

We need technology that can detect new devices, as well as existing ones.

And we need continued close collaboration between the aviation and aerospace industries, security equipment manufacturers, academics and researchers, to redouble efforts to tackle the threat.

No compromise on security

At the same time, we need to keep explaining to passengers why the security checks at airports are so important.

Despite raised concerns about the terror threat in the years after 9/11, some people still saw the tighter security regime as a nuisance.

Although our surveys in the UK suggest that the vast majority of passengers accept the need for more thorough checks, it is still quite common to hear people in the queues asking if such measures are necessary.

Well, the answer is yes – they are.

Admittedly, being asked to turn out liquids and laptops, and take off shoes, is not a pleasant start to a journey.

It’s also a huge logistical challenge for airports – and requires significant investment in staff.

But the checks are there for a reason.

Of course we are constantly seeking better solutions to the problem, and technologies that can do the job with minimum inconvenience to the passenger.

But while we’ll keep looking for new ways of screening passengers if security is compromised in any way at all, or if it’s impractical to introduce at busy airports, we will keep current measures in place.

For example, the industry is making good progress in developing equipment that can screen liquids effectively.

But as yet the new machines can’t screen large numbers of bottles without creating long queues.

What is worrying is that some people say the controls on liquids should be dropped as they are no longer necessary.

Just because there have been no repeat attempts to smuggle explosive liquids on board recently does not mean we can stop checks.

Many other terrorists who want to attack aircraft now know what the 2006 plotters knew.

So we can’t simply hope that no-one will try the same approach again.

And not everything we know about terrorist intentions reaches the public domain.

We continue to face a threat from terrorists.

And we will continue to take whatever action is required to deal with that threat.

That means maintaining the safety regime that has worked very effectively for 9 years.


But of course we have made important progress in other ways.

It is now far more difficult to hijack an aircraft in flight.

We’ve introduced new standards for reinforced cockpit doors, and new rules on access to the cockpit.

If these are followed, it is very difficult for passengers to take control of a flight.

Meanwhile the research community and equipment manufacturers continue to work hard on new screening technology and new approaches to find concealed explosives.

New techniques are emerging which will not only offer better detection, but will also help speed passenger throughput and reduce industry costs.

Innovation will continue to drive change and make the security checkpoint of the future look quite different from how it is today.

Human issues

But my biggest concern on security is not to do with technology.

It is to do with human behaviour.

Airport screeners are hard-working people.

Using complex detection equipment requires a range of skills, as well as attention to detail.

And undertaking a pat-down search, not an easy or pleasant task, requires care and professionalism.

We depend on these people to do their jobs well and thoroughly.

And they need to be well trained and well managed.

It’s my responsibility to make sure this is being done effectively in the UK – and take action where we find standards may be slipping.

But UK citizens don’t just fly out of the country.

They also fly back, so it’s important screeners at overseas airports do a good job too.

Maintaining quality is a challenge for us here in the UK, and it’s a challenge everywhere.

It’s so easy to become complacent.

Technology can help but only so far.

So it’s essential the international community works together to ensure our security regimes act as a real deterrent.

For example, last year we asked airlines to step up security measures for some flights to Britain.

I’m grateful for the support we’ve received from partner countries to put these measures in place.

It’s a sign that we can work together to resist those who want to harm our way of life.

Cyber security

I’d also like to say a few words today about cyber-security.

The title I was given for my speech today was “aviation security in an increasingly complex environment.”

Nowhere is complexity greater than in the systems that control our aircraft, our airports and air traffic management.

A generation ago it was possible for a reasonably well educated person to understand basic technology in a car.

And even the systems in an aircraft were fairly easy to comprehend.

Today it requires a high-level of specialism to understand complex avionics and digital communications systems.

This makes aviation vulnerable to those with malign intent.

And the danger may not always come from terrorists.

Much of the cyber threat across society comes from those who seek commercial gain, or who want to cause economic damage and disruption for a variety of motives.

So just as we have to stay at least one step ahead on detecting explosives, we have to do the same on cyber-security.

That means analysing the risk systematically and with a calm head, anticipating the threats and addressing the main vulnerabilities, supporting industry with the actions it needs to take, and taking the right actions as regulators to help protect industry and passengers when we need to.

Closing remarks

Despite the unprecedented threat aviation has faced in the years since 9/11, the international security response has successfully prevented any further major attack on commercial aircraft.

That’s testament to many dedicated people in the security services, and the effective strategies of governments and airports to prevent the terrorists from achieving their goals.

Our future response will be based on the same principles.

Never compromising on security or dropping our guard.

Staying ahead on protective measures and technologies.

And working together to constantly improve and innovate.

We can be proud of what we’ve achieved so far.

But our job is not to look back.

It’s to look forward.

And redouble our efforts to thwart the efforts of those who threaten our way of life.

Thank you.

Published 21 October 2015