Next threat to air travel will come as cargo: security expert

Last Updated: Wednesday, June 6, 2007 | 3:42 PM ET

CBC News

Canada's skies are vulnerable to another attack against passenger travel unless tougher cargo controls are implemented on the ground, an aviation security expert testified at the Air India inquiry Wednesday.

"The answer to airline security is on the ground. Once the plane is in the air, it's too late," Kathleen Sweet, a professor of homeland security management at the University of Connecticut and a U.S. army colonel, told the inquiry in Ottawa.

The inquiry is looking into security lapses that allowed B.C.-based Sikh extremists to plant a bomb in luggage loaded on an Air India jet in 1985. The device exploded as the plane neared the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 people on board.

To prevent another such tragedy, Sweet suggests various levels of security training for all airport staff from vendors and janitors to cargo handlers and pilots and to have them retrained with the latest information every year.

"Unless we get on this quickly, a plane's going to go down," she told the inquiry, which is looking into the investigation and prosecutions in the Air India case.

The September 2001 attacks against the United States orchestrated by al-Qaeda have left her with "great fears," she added. The attackers reportedly used knives and box cutters to take control of the aircraft. Since then, airport security has focused on tighter screening of what passengers carry on to the planes.

"We tend to fight the last war. We're not going to have terrorists attempting to board with box cutters anymore."

The next threat would likely be a bomb that ends up in the cargo hold, rather than suicide hijackers in the passenger compartment, Sweet predicted, "and we're going to be fighting the next war.

"I believe Osama bin Laden has a penchant for the aviation industry."

She says "simple training" like photos of people on intelligence search lists or common indicators that things are wrong, such as someone wearing a bulky jacket in stifling hot weather, could help prevent another attack.

Sweet said without training and refresher courses, security could miss new threats, citing the example of bombs being hidden in new ways, for example in sex toys and teddy bears.

Cleaners must be more thorough, experts warn

Another security weakness identified was the importance of cleaning planes between trips.

"I flew in on Air Canada yesterday and the plane was filthy," Sweet said. "The fact that the garbage was piled up so significantly between the seats [indicates] that something could be hidden in there."

She said trash could hide threats such as knives or liquid explosives. Sweet said that staff have to clean the whole plane, including checking the toilets and overhead bins.

"You have to do the whole thing. You can't just run a sweeper down the main aisle and say, 'Oh, the airplane is clean.' That's silly. That is dangerous."

Return witness Rodney Wallis, an international civil aviation security consultant, agreed, adding that in 1987, militants on a Korean Airlines plane left liquid explosives on board hidden in a liquor bottle.

"If you don't have discipline in cleaning and searching the airport at all points, then you have a problem," said Wallis. "Not just the clutter in the ground but also the clutter overhead."

The two witnesses also agreed on the need for dogs in airports to sniff out bombs and other contraband items.

The inquiry, which started in 2006, was called because the Air India investigation and prosecution was the costliest and one of the longest in Canadian history yet led to no murder convictions.

The luggage carrying the bomb and another that killed two baggage handlers at a Tokyo airport were loaded at Vancouver International Airport.

Investigators believe the bombings were carried out by extremists who wanted India to create an independent Sikh homeland.

Only one person was ever convicted in the plot. Inderjit Singh Reyat pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 2003 and received a five-year sentence.

The suspected ringleader, Talwinder Singh Parmar, died in India in 1992 and the RCMP's two main surviving suspects were both acquitted in March 2005, after a 19-month trial.