CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: RFID and flight security

What more could we be doing?

Written on EZ3866 flying Amsterdam to London Stansted and dispatched to silicon.com from London Heathrow via wi-fi.

Along with an aircraft full of people at Schipol, I have just stowed my luggage in the overhead, got seated and settled in, ready to fly back to the UK. But a passenger has just been found smoking in the toilets! The fun has started - he has just been informed that he has committed a criminal offence, he is crying, his girlfriend is upset, other passengers are taking photographs, some even find it amusing.

I don't, and neither do the crew. Safety procedures are being followed and the determined process of ejecting both passengers from the aircraft is underway. How stupid can people be?

The flight from Amsterdam to London Stansted is only 30 minutes long; there are signs and announcements enough to warn people about smoking all over the airport and the aircraft. What was he thinking? Or was he thinking at all! Anyway he is being escorted from the aircraft and the search for his baggage and belongings begins. Did he board at the front or the back? Did he plant something in the overhead or in the toilet, is he a potential bomber or is he just stupid?

As I flew out of Boston the day before 9/11, and passed through all of the London bomb-sites on 7/7 some twenty-six hours before the attacks, I have this worrying feeling that I may be on a converging disaster timeline. The miscreant has the complexion, dress and look of a potential bomber. All the archetypal patterns are kicking in and I'm definitely feeling a bit worried.

The flight crew is pretty sure he boarded at the back, so they start pulling all the bags down from the overheads and asking all the passengers to identify their luggage an item at a time. This takes some considerable time and involves about 30 per cent of the aircraft, and in my mind are questions about the remaining 70 per cent and whether the smoking passenger was very stupid or very clever. On balance I think everyone comes down on the side of stupid! But what a ruse, how easy a mechanism if he did indeed want to plant a bomb or some other weapon.

Eventually we roll out onto the runway over an hour late, and 30 minutes later we are at Stansted - all safe and sound - phew! On the flight I started musing over the problem and it occurred to me that whilst I cannot carry a knife or firearm onto the plane, I can carry a box of matches and/or a lighter. I can also purchase a bottle of whisky from duty free, plus of course flammable clothing and other materials. I'm sure you get the idea! Seems to me all means of ignition should be banned on all flights if we are really serious about aircraft safety.

At this point the obvious struck me - we need to roll out RFID even faster than planned, and not just for passports and documentation but for all bags and clothing, purchases and belongings. I'm not sure what happened to the miscreant after we took off but when he was first apprehended I would have favoured a public stoning on the runway, biblical style!

Yet on reflection, I admit English, Dutch, French and German were not his first languages. He may have been a first-time flyer; or just plain exhausted. The security check-in never asked for the declaration, or looked for, flammables directly. For sure cigarettes, cigars, lighters and matches are hard to spot using today's scanners, and thoroughly searching every passenger and their baggage isn't feasible.

There is one other measure that would be very easy in the interim, though. Stop treating all passengers the same. Look for and search out the first-time and occasional flyers, identify those with limited language skills, focus more energy on the likely suspects and people more inclined to err for whatever reason. All the data is available, it ain't rocket science, it's just databases and (un)common sense.

I'm now at T4 Heathrow waiting to board for Washington on an aircraft that is twice the size with even more potential for such incidents! Hopefully my converging timeline theory is wrong!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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