International Standardization of Air Passenger and Cargo Screening

Despite efforts by the United States and other nations to strengthen passenger and cargo screening procedures and technology, civil aviation remains a favored target of international terrorists. The attempts of Richard Reid, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and other al Qaeda operatives have demonstrated that terrorists are determined to circumvent aviation security measures by identifying and exploiting the weakest links in these systems. While the screening tools and processes currently in place have helped prevent further attacks since 9/11, aviation security at the international level is far from optimized. Security screening processes, conducted by individual nations operating within their own regulatory framework, have created a number of weaknesses and inefficiencies within the system. Due to the inherently global nature of civil aviation, some policymakers have suggested that the international standardization of screening is required to address this evolving threat.

While both the Unites States and the European Union (EU) have implemented their own independent policies for domestic screening standardization, efforts to develop an overarching policy regime have faltered, primarily due to issues of sovereignty. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has taken important steps to advance the discussion of the issue, emphasizing that deterring threats requires global participation. In October 2010, the 190 member-states of ICAO endorsed a Declaration on Aviation Security, mutually adopting a Comprehensive Aviation Security Strategy intended to shape policies at the global and regional level over the next five years. ICAO’s strategy does not mandate specific security practices; rather, it establishes consensus on the importance of a global effort, promotes an innovative and efficient approach to security, and offers broad recommendations on security measures. Because of the scope and complexity of the aviation security problem, however, current efforts may not be enough.

While ICAO does put forward minimum compliance requirements on security measures, such as mandatory passenger screening prior to boarding and establishment of procedures to deal with unidentified baggage, each member-state is individually responsible for translating those broad guidelines into their own national aviation security program. Although the threshold set by ICAO standards is low, many countries regularly fail audits. The Transportation Security Administration, through its Foreign Airport Assessment Program, has made a concerted effort to identify and address deficiencies, yet overarching systemic weaknesses persist, resulting in exploitable vulnerabilities.
Countries with poor governance and inadequate regulation are especially concerning, as the relatively lax screening standards of these nations’ airports may make them attractive to terrorists seeking access to the global aviation system. In addition, inconsistent screening standards hinder the efficiency of individual states’ programs. Baggage screened in the EU using advanced x-ray technology, for example, must be rescreened in the United States using Computerized Tomography (CT) scanning, the preferred U.S. method.

The security benefits of implementing international standards can been seen in the adoption by the United States and EU of rules banning more than 3.4 ounces of liquids on flights, a protocol widely considered by aviation security specialists to be a  successful attempt to counter a threat at the international level.  In addition to general benefits derived from a more harmonized security system, standardization has the potential to reduce costs and confusion for both operators and passengers. In the defense industry realm, the case of NATO’s Standardization Agreements, or STANAGS, could indicate the advantages to be gained from global standards. These frameworks have enhanced NATO interoperability and effective use of resources by establishing common operational procedures and logistics.  A harmonized system could maximize efficiency, so that industry leaders can perform targeted research and development that best fits the needs of regulators. Common technology and system interoperability might make for a smoother and more coherent flow of passengers and baggage, enhancing mobility and ease of travel.

Perhaps most important, institutionalizing common practices worldwide could close the gaps that terrorists beyond our shores are looking to exploit. Because every airport is a potential entry into the global aviation system, a terrorist’s manipulation of a security gap in an airport far from his final destination could threaten the security of citizens across the globe. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, for example, originated his travel in Ghana and then transferred to a flight in Amsterdam before attempting to detonate himself above Detroit. Air travel is inherently global and interconnected, yet current measures lag behind this reality.

Despite global acknowledgment of the problem, there exist a number of challenges to making standardization politically and financially feasible. National sovereignty issues limit the willingness of individual nations to participate in an internationalized regime. Countries have divergent views on the seriousness of the threat: for some countries less affected by terrorist attacks on aviation, screening is not an urgent national priority. In other cases, a lack of resources—financial, infrastructural, and human—hampers implementation of new security practices. Certain practices may be deemed unacceptable for cultural or legal reasons, particularly when privacy or civil liberties are in question.  Because of these significant impediments, the road to standardization will be neither easy nor immediate, yet because of the benefits that might be derived—including enhanced security and the potential for long-term efficiency—an internationally harmonized system should be explored as a possible solution to a challenging global problem.

Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program and a senior fellow in the International Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Kimberly Walker, an intern in the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program, holds a BA in history from Middlebury College and currently pursues a master’s degree in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2011 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


Kimberly Walker