The price of safety

Anyone passing through an airport over the last few days will have acquired this summer’s must-have travel accessory, the clear plastic bag.

The chaos of the past week has again turned the spotlight on the vulnerability of the aviation industry and, inevitably, the role of technology in ensuring our safety.

On the bleakest view, the plastic bag and hand-luggage ban are symbols of the failure of security systems, at least in their current incarnation, to do their job.

If the authorities had full confidence in the technology in place, the draconian measures of last weekend would not have been necessary. There was obviously a concern that the alleged plotters had found a gap that only total lockdown could plug.

So should we accept that technology is fighting a losing battle against those who might seek to do us harm?

Not necessarily. Since September 11 2001, when the aviation industry changed forever, companies such as GE and the UK’s Smiths Group have been developing new generations of security systems to deal with the evolving threats.

Advances in areas such as terahertz imaging have considerable potential to screen effectively for devices and substances invisible to traditional methods.

In many respects an aircraft, via the tightly controlled environment of an airport, is far easier to protect than that other favourite target of international terror, the commuter train.

But here’s the rub. These advanced security systems don’t come cheap. Here, as so often, the balancing act between technology and economics comes into play.

Since last Thursday we have seen the fractious relationship between airports and airlines, with the divisions between the two suggesting not so much a united industry as a barely concealed mutual distrust. Accusations of blame and demands for compensation have been flying even if planes have not.

If security technology is available, surely it should be deployed, whatever the cost. But who would pay?

The airport operators is the obvious answer, but as private businesses with profits and shareholders to consider, can they reasonably be expected to shoulder the burden alone?

The government has assured us that we are facing an unparalleled national threat. In that case, perhaps the government needs to use its powers to require that the UK’s aviation industry has the best technology available, and helps to foot the bill, whatever that may be.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online