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Despite some questions about the credibility of the ‘underpants’ bomber incident as reported, it has provoked a major reaction on the part of governments, security agencies and aviation authorities, which, with immediate affect, is going to make the life of every air traveller a little more difficult.

  Phuket City

May 2010

In the wake of the 'underpants' bomber incident in the United States on Christmas day, last year security at airports around the world, and this will include Phuket International Airport (PIA), is about to get a major shakeup. As you'll doubtless have heard, a young Nigerian terrorist tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight, approaching Detroit from Amsterdam in Holland. Thankfully, he was overpowered by passengers before he could activate the plastic explosives strapped to his body.

It was a wakeup call to the international aviation community. At a recent Asia-Pacific security conference in Tokyo, held to examine ways of combating this new vulnerability, Japan's transport minister Seiji Maehara said, "While we strengthen security measures, new forms of terrorism may possibly be planned to outdo them."

This was from a country like Japan where the likelihood of a similar bomb attempt is quite low. The same could be said of Thailand. While bombs go off with alarming regularity in the deep south because of the insurgency there, Thailand is not on the list of countries where there's a high probability of a terrorist attack of this nature.

Nonetheless, no one can afford to be complacent these days. Consequently, at the Tokyo security conference Asia-Pacific countries, including Thailand, vowed to boost international security standards and measures, including the installation of screening technology.

In fact there have been three such conferences since January – in Europe, and in North and South America. Following on from these meetings, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a United Nations body dealing with aviation security, will meet in September to map out an overall strategy to improve international aviation security.

The Asia-Pacific conference agreed to share expertise and best practices in screening and inspection techniques, weapons detection, explosive and hazardous materials handling, and the training of human resources such as sky marshals.

Sky marshals are undercover law enforcement or counter-terrorist agents in mufti, placed on board commercial aircraft to counter terrorist attacks. Sky marshals may be provided by airlines such as Israel's El Al (who carry sky marshals on every flight), or by government agencies such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the German Federal Police, the US Federal Air Marshal Service or the United Kingdom Metropolitan Police.

While these discussions and preparations are on-going, Thailand has already implemented a number of new security measures. In the past, the screening process at Bangkok and Phuket airports has been somewhat 'relaxed'. Nowadays, procedures are much more rigorous.

New regulations have resulted in the restrictions with which most travellers will be familiar.

At Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok measures are also in place to stop an unauthorised occupation like that of the 'yellow shirt' protesters in 2008.

A word to the wise, with security measures continuing to get tighter, it's a good idea to arrive at the airport earlier than you've done hitherto. This is particularly so, if you're travelling to places like the United States.

Of course, many observers say that all these intrusive procedures at airports could be avoided if governments introduced measures whereby the profile of individuals – their race, nationality, criminal record, etc. are all uploaded onto a computer, so that a potential threat to security can be identified well in advance.

The United Kingdom authorities are also getting a lot tougher. Here are some of their new security measures:

  • All transit passengers who travel via the UK will now be required to leave their plane and undergo full screening checks before resuming their journeys.
  • There will be increased searches of passengers.
  • Airports will make increasing use of explosive trace detection technology and sniffer dogs.
  • Airports will be introducing advanced imaging technology, commonly referred to as ‘body scanning’.

The body scanning measures have raised concerns about individual privacy. To address these, the UK authorities have laid out some ground rules. These include:

  • Passengers will be randomly selected for body scanning in the same way that they’re currently selected for other aviation security measures, such as the removal of footwear and conventional hand searches.
  • This selection will not be linked to race, ethnic origin, gender, or age.
  • Children will be included. Parents/guardians will be able to remain with a child throughout the process, as long as they follow the instructions of security staff, and their presence doesn’t obscure the scanned image.

It does sound good in theory, but in an age when terrorists are increasingly home-grown converts to violent action, such profiling remains an imperfect science. The authorities have to be vigilant all the time; the terrorists only need to be lucky once.

By Alastair Carthew, a Phuket based writer and communications advisor.
Tel: +66 (0)76 317929
Email: alastaircarthew@gmail.com

 

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