How Safe Are Our Skies?
Assessing the Airlines’ Response to Terrorism

by Rodney Wallis

Praeger, Westport, 2003
ISBN 0-275-97847-8

It is generally accepted that the Pan Am aircraft [in 1988] was destroyed in revenge for the shooting down of an Iranian Airbus, with more than 200 passengers and crew on board, by a U.S. warship, the Vincennes, earlier that same year. Perhaps no definition is needed specifically for air terrorism. Certainly by late summer 2001 most Americans had, for 13 years, related this phenomena to the 1988 destruction of Pan Am’s flight 103. The facts of that tragedy had been etched into their minds. p.13.

Consider again the bombing of Air India’s Kandishka. In the years following the aircraft’s destruction by Sikh extremists, numerous stories arose about alleged lack of communication between the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the federal police force, the Royal Canada Mounted Police (RCMP). Claims and counter claims emerged in respect of surveillance tapes relevant to the bombers made by the CSIS but never handed over to the RCMP. They were mysteriously destroyed by the intelligence service. The missing tapes were telephone wiretap recordings of conversations between two Sikhs. It is known that the CSIS had one prominent Sikh activist under surveillance for some time before the bombing. Agents of the intelligence service had on one occasion trailed him, together with a second cell member, to a wooded area outside Vancouver in British Columbia, where the two subsequently tested an explosive device. The agents initially believed the explosion to be a weapon firing, and they took no action. Later RCMP officers found the remains of two blasting caps at the site, indicating that something more significant than a gun firing had taken place. … If one lesson is to be learned from major assaults on civil aviation, it is that the intelligence services must work with those directly responsible for a nation’s security. -- Governments must add offensive action to defensive mechanisms if air terrorism is to be beaten. p. 20

[Following the crash of the Swiss Air] 111, it was reported that the Canadian government spent $63 million on the investigation. The figure was expected to climb much higher before any final conclusions were reached.

A year after the loss of Swissair flight 111, on October 31, 1999, an Egyptair Boeing 767 en route from New York to Cairo crashed off the coast of Nantucket island, Massachusetts. The crash took the lives of 217 people. -- [T]he black boxes – the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and the flight data recorder, as noted earlier – were found on the seabed early in the recovery process. The transcription of the CVR took some time because of the need to translate into English the Arabic spoken by the pilots. This was a cooperative effort using interpreters contracted by the National Transport Safety Board, a Federal Investigation Bureau language specialist, English-speaking members of the Egyptian investigating team, and a State Department representative. The usual 16 hours taken to develop a 30-minute transcript extended in this instance to 130 hours. Despite the attention given to the translation work, differences arose between the various participants, even to the extent of whether one or more persons had been in the cockpit throughout the incident. p.141, 143

The skills essential for a successful airline director of security may not be found in a person whose experience has been confined within the parameters of a city or even a national or federal police force. Airline security directors should have experience and understanding of world geography and politics. They would benefit from personal exposure to a range of cultures. They need an understanding of people alien to their own environment. An airline is a commercial entity whose purpose is to make a profit for its shareholders. A balance has to be struck, one that ensures the security of the company’s customers while satisfying the expectations of its owners. p. 165

All past incidents of aviation terrorism have something to teach today’s airlines and airport managers and those government administrators who have the responsibility for commercial aviation operations. Lessons form the past must not go unheeded. The international aviation organizations…seek to ensure that this does not happen and have based their security training programs on the eclectic, firsthand experiences of their multicultural membership. … [N]ational bodies have to incorporate into their national or federal programs the lessons drawn from the experience of others. p. 175

The continuing threat

Much of the Arab and increasingly the Muslim world at large sees U.S. foreign policy as anti-Palestinian and anti-Muslim. Therein lies the basis of much of the continued threat to U.S. civil aviation. The events of Spring 2002, when Israel again sent troops into Palestine, exacerbated matters. Thus airplanes will be under increased threat. The carriers have to level the playing field themselves; they have to institute security procedures to protect their services against an enemy that displays less anger toward other nationalities. The airlines must work with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure adoption of carrier procedures that preempt possible terrorist attacks on their aircraft. Their first duty must be to protect their customers. p. 189.

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