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Securing air travel

Ensuring the security of air transport has become a major priority for all stakeholders in the aviation sector. The events of September 11 2001 and subsequent developments have renewed efforts to protect passengers, crew and infrastructure from attack. New technologies and processes are being brought to bear on a complex problem that is further complicated by an unprecedented growth in demand for air travel.

Tags: Air
Aircraft cabin
© Peter Gutierrez

The recent imposition of a Europe-wide restriction on cabin baggage and liquids is the latest manifestation of policies that are being devised to protect air travellers. Although air travel, in terms of passenger kilometres travelled per fatality, is amongst the safer modes of travel, its very nature requires special measures and enhanced security.

Security, both in general, and specifically for air transport has become of greater importance in terms of European policymaking and research. Of course, security has always been a matter of concern in the field of aviation, in particular since the Lockerbie bombing in 1988. However, this concern has been addressed at the Member State level rather than at Community level. Security standards (laid down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC)) already existed prior to the attacks on the ‘twin towers’, but it was clear after the attacks that an enforceable EU security policy for rules and mechanisms for cooperation at EU level was required to meet the new, enhanced terrorist threats.

Security measures at all EU airports, for both national and international flights, are now set at a comparable level and the Commission has made arrangements for airport inspections. Tougher controls and better training of staff are in place and other measures, such as the reinforcement of cockpit doors, marked the immediate European response to the new security situation.

Ultra Secure

However, Europe has also started a range of new research initiatives to provide new security solutions for air transport. The research will be aimed at enhancing protection measures including preventing hostile action and aircraft misuse. Topics include security measures in cabin and cockpit designs and automatic control, as well as security aspects of airspace management and airport operations.

Over the past decade growth in demand for air travel has been increasing (see Figure) and it is predicted that this is likely to accelerate. Any new measures and processes need to increase security whilst not impinging on the efficient movement of air travellers.

The Advisory Council for Aeronautical Research in Europe (ACARE) has produced a Strategic Research Agenda that includes an Ultra Secure Air Transport System High Level Target Concept. This sets out a vision and research requirements that aim to make it impossible for an attacking force of any kind to succeed in creating injury, loss, damage or disruption either on air travellers or on the general population through air transport.

The Ultra Secure Concept addresses aircraft security systems, including cockpit and cabin monitoring and protection, as well as controlled aircraft operation and landing using ground-based systems, secured airspace management and communications networks, as well as in-airport security systems.

For ultra security there are many fundamental needs that require research and development including to know who its passengers and employees actually are. To achieve this needs the creation of databases at the individual level that hold unique identifying data for each person that travels or is involved with the air travel system. Such a system needs to be rigorous but also well regulated to safeguard the proper use of the data.

Research programmes

The forthcoming seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7) will feature a fully-fledged security research programme that is likely to respond to many aspects of the Ultra Secure research agenda. But a number of actions have already been undertaken including the commissioning of research projects under FP6 and the building of a community of industrial and research stakeholders that can undertake the new Security Research programme. This community includes representatives of the aerospace industry both large and small.

The ‘Preparatory Action on the Enhancement of European Industrial Potential in the Field of Security Research’ (PASR) was launched in 2004 and has financed some half a dozen projects in five priority research categories identified by the Commission as key to safeguarding the security of Europe's citizenry. The five categories are improving situation awareness; optimising security and protection of networked systems; protecting against terrorism; enhancing crisis management; and achieving interoperability and integrated systems for information and communication.

In aeronautics, PASR is considering advanced on-board aircraft detection, surveillance, and communications systems to augment situation awareness capability. It is also looking to integrate these systems with existing civil and military air traffic control systems, the next-generation navigational satellites such as Europe’s GALILEO network, and with ground-based national emergency response systems on the ground.

The PASR projects were financed from the European Union's budget with a total allocation of €65 million for the period 2004-2006. Contributions in kind from industry and research groups in the form of expertise and access to their research and testing facilities can be added to this total.

Of course this is just the starting point, indeed PASR projects are known as ‘security test cases’ that prefigure much larger ambitions for the European Union in the area of security research. The final budget breakdowns for FP7 that will cover EC-funded research from 2007 - 2013 reveal over €4 billion allocated for all Transport research and the new, separate research theme of security is allocated €1.4 billion.

Projects in flight

Examples of security research in FP6 include the SAFEE project (Security of aircraft in the future European environment). This is already investigating and developing technologies aimed at improving security for commercial air travellers, focusing on in-aircraft systems.

To protect an aircraft against hijacking requires building numerous defensive layers. A first level of defence involves security procedures on the ground to prevent dangerous individuals getting on the aircraft. However if this level fails then on-board systems must come into play.

Types of attack to be addressed by SAFEE include classic hijacking situations, September 11-type scenarios where an aircraft is commandeered to be used as a weapon, and other scenarios that could involve electronic jamming and hacking of aircraft or aircraft control computer systems.

The SAFEE system concept is to design a modular set of components that means that customers can install the specific sub-systems they require and also allow the flexibility to upgrade and modify subsystems in the future.

Five research areas are addressed within SAFEE. These are onboard threat detection, which could involve the application of advanced audio and video surveillance techniques; threat assessment and response management using data on perceived threat indicators that are consolidated and used to determine appropriate courses of action; flight protection through taking appropriate action, either by human elements or via automated systems; new processing tools to cope with the enormous amount of data that the onboard systems will generate; and finally a research area for cross-cutting issues that will address the integration of the various components to build a complete and comprehensive system for on-board security. SAFEE is to be completed at the end of 2007.

Another EU-funded project is OPTAG (Improving airport efficiency, security and passenger flow by enhanced passenger monitoring) that is looking to improve airport efficiency and security literally tracking all passengers as they move through an airport before boarding. This will be achieved by a combination of cameras and digital imaging, plus ‘radio frequency identification’ (RFID) tagging.

The system, which will be demonstrated at Debrecen airport in Hungary, not only enhances security as an essential component of threat assessment systems, for example by identifying suspicious passenger movements, but has the potential to help efficiency as well. The OPTAG system will be able to locate checked in passengers who are either missing or late, and therefore reduce passenger-related delays and speed up aircraft turnaround.

Figure on Air Travel Growth

From ACARE Strategic Research Agenda Vol 1, October 2004 © Source: ICAO
From ACARE Strategic Research Agenda Vol 1, October 2004
© Source: ICAO