Aviation Notes: Another Lockerbie could happen today

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AS THE 10th anniversary of the bombing of PanAm 103 over Lockerbie approaches, media attention has been concentrated on the prospect of the two Libyan suspects indicted for their alleged role in the bombing being brought to trial in Holland.

But we should not lose sight of another dimension of Lockerbie, an aspect that remains of central importance to all airline passengers, the civil aviation industry, governments, and the international community as a whole. Bearing in mind that the Lockerbie atrocity could have been prevented if the aviation security measures theoretically in place at the time had been properly implemented, could another Lockerbie happen today?

Although the annual totals of terrorist incidents involving citizens of more than one country have declined since the early 1990s, there has been a worrying trend towards more lethal and indiscriminate attacks, as exemplified by the recent bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, the suicide bombings in Israel, the massacre of foreign tourists at Luxor, and the carnage of the Omagh bombing.

There have been other civilian jets destroyed by mid-air sabotage bombs since Lockerbie, for example the bombing of a UTA airliner over the Niger desert and the destruction of a Panamanian commuter plane, with the loss of all on board. There have been mid-air bombings where the pilot succeeded in making an emergency landing, but in which passengers were killed and injured. There have also been at least half a dozen cases where bombs have mercifully been discovered onboard, or during boarding or loading.

Due to weak links in the International Aviation Security System, another Lockerbie could happen today. Despite security improvements in countries such as Britain and Germany, there are still major gaps which terrorists can exploit.

One of the lessons the civil aviation industry and governments should have learnt from the Lockerbie tragedy is never to allow terrorists' tactics and weaponry to outstrip the capacity of our aviation security measures and equipment. At the time of the Lockerbie bombing, aviation security was still mainly configured to deal with combating the hijacker. It is a depressing fact that many airports around the world, especially in Africa and the CIS countries, do not yet deploy adequate expertise, procedures, and equipment able to reliably detect the type of plastic explosive hidden in a radio-cassette recorder used to destroy PanAm 103.

British aviation security comes out very well in comparison with other major aviation countries. It took about five years after Lockerbie to complete a much stronger set of defences against the sabotage bombing: a statutorily backed regulatory agency with powers to inspect and enforce aviation security standards, a comprehensive system of positive passenger- baggage reconciliation, and the introduction of high- quality explosive detection systems.

The United States, despite its importance as the leading aviation power and its unenviable status as the most popular target for international terrorist attacks, still lags behind. The recommendations made by the US Commission for Aviation Safety and Security were not made mandatory. The US civil aviation industry has resisted these recommendations on grounds of cost or practicality. US airports have also been slow to acquire the latest generation of explosive detection machines, despite the leading US research role in developing this technology.

The importance of enhancing a country's aviation security to meet new and emerging terrorist challenges cannot be over- emphasised. Effective national aviation security systems are the building blocks of better global security for the air traveller.

Paul Wilkinson and Brian Jenkins are the editors of `Aviation Terrorism and Security' (Frank Cass, pounds 32.50/pounds 17.50)