This concept paper identifies a significant weakness in security relating to domestic airline travel which could be exploited by terrorists. And proposes changes to the way in which domestic airline travel is booked and how passengers board domestic aircraft. The proposals bring domestic travel almost in line with international air travel requirements.
Islamic State and those who support or are aligned with that terrorist organisation, both in Australia and abroad, are becoming more creative in the methods they use and the targets they attack. Trucks, mini vans and knifes are their simple and effective weapons of choice. And when deployed by those who are determined to inflict maximum injury and death upon innocent people, they create and spread fear and panic in our community.
And after every attack, our Government and law enforcement leaders assure us that everything that can be done is being done to protect us from a terror attack in Australia. But it is not. Australia has not to the extent possible identified all potential risks and all examined options to prevent a future terrorist attack.
Risk management models used to identify and assess the risk of a terrorist attack no longer apply. It is impossible to assess the likelihood of an attack by a group of terrorists or a lone wolf attacker. And while attacking soft targets such as people walking on a bridge causes fear and destroys life; it does not result in substantial physical damage and economic loss. It does not cause extensive inconvenience to the lives of thousands of people, nor force authorities and private sector companies to commit substantial resources to prevent future attacks. All of which are primary objectives of terrorist organisations.
Security Weakness in Our Domestic Air Travel
Terrorist attacks on soft targets should not cause us to become complacent and ignore high risk targets such as airports and air travel. An attack in an airport or aircraft would cause significant harm, damage and alarm within our community.
Domestic air travel in Australia is vulnerable to the use and exploitation by terrorists. Suspect terrorists use air travel to meet supporters, attend training and plan an attack. And if given an opportunity, to commit a terrorist attack on a domestic flight.
It is an offence in Australia to acquire an air passenger ticket using false identification information and to undertake a domestic flight using an air passenger ticket acquired using false identification information. However, currently, any person who books a domestic or international flight in Australia is not required to identify themselves at the time of making a booking.
While an international traveller is required to identify themselves at the time of check in and again prior to boarding a flight by presenting their passport; a person checking in and boarding a domestic flight is not. And the person, in whose name the ticket has been booked, is not required to identify themselves prior to boarding any aircraft engaged on a domestic flight. These are significant weaknesses in Australia’s domestic air travel system. Even many motels and hotels in Australia ask for photo identification when a customer checks in.
A terrorist could book a flight in a name, including a false name and any person could use that ticket to undertake the flight. The offences that render that activity illegal are only minor offences and do not present a deterrent. And a terrorist intending on travelling on the flight for any reason would not be deterred by the offences anyway, regardless of how serious they were.
Lack of Intelligence
There is a large number of people in Australia who support Islamic State and Al Qaeda. ASIO, the Australian Federal Police and State and Territory police forces do not have the resources to monitor them all using physical and/or electronic surveillance. And those measures can be easily defeated. Resulting at times in the location of the suspect being unknown to authorities. If recent attacks in the UK are any guide; the attackers were known to authorities but they did not have the resources to monitor them. Intelligence was lacking. And in countering the actions of terrorists three things must be known by the intelligence and law enforcement authorities at all times. They are location, location and location. Where has the suspect been previously? Where is he/she now? And from the information obtained from answering those questions; where is he/she likely to go next? Only the receipt of timely intelligence provides those answers.
Screening Does Not Identify High Risk People
Counter terrorism measures at Australian airports are designed to identify a potential terrorist by detecting anything a person might be carrying that could cause harm to people, the airport or to an aircraft. The screening is not designed to alert authorities to the movement of a person who might pose a risk to the airport, people or to aircraft. And even with current measures in place, it is possible for a potential attacker to arm themselves at an Australian airport; once they have cleared security screening; by obtaining metal knives and forks from an airport lounge or from a supporter who works in any of the cafes located at Australian airports. Other than presentation of a credit card to pay for membership, a person is not required to identify themselves when applying to become a member of an airline operated lounge. While the implements available in lounges and cafes are relatively blunt; they can still inflict significant injury or death if used with sufficient force on a person’s head, neck and other soft tissue of a person’s body. Terrorists armed with implements obtained airside wouldn’t be able to get access to the cockpit, but that would not be their objective. Why would a terrorist/s attack people on the streets of an Australian city with knifes, when they could achieve better results, from their perspective, by hacking and attacking fellow passengers at 30,000 feet in a pressurised aircraft?
Travelling in small groups, they could cause significant harm to other passengers before they were stopped by other passengers and/or crew, if they are stopped at all. It is not hard to imagine a nightmare scenario of a domestic flight making an emergency return to an airport following an attack on board a plane, only for the authorities to discover that all or most of the passengers have been killed or seriously injured. The one-hour delay, for well-conceived reasons, by Victoria Police to enter a Malaysian Airlines aircraft following as incident on board a flight out of Melbourne, only highlights the possibility of serious harm being done to passengers during the time it takes for authorities to assume control of a situation.
Target Hardening Domestic Travel
So how does Australia target harden our domestic airlines from being used by potential terrorists? First, Australia needs to implement a “Know Your Passenger” system for our domestic airline system. This could operate in a manner similar to the Know Your Customer framework currently in place to combat money laundering and terrorism financing. Any person who books a flight would be required to submit various forms of identification to prove who they are. Unlike other institutions such as a bank, an airline operating in Australia does not undertake electronic verification of a traveller. On line verification can occur by requiring a person who is booking a flight to quote one form of acceptable identification, similar to the primary identification documents required when opening a bank account.
If a person is making a booking through a travel agent, the agent would be responsible for checking their identification and retaining a copy of it. For example, an Australian passport or drivers licence. Those who do not have either document can quote in the case of an online booking or if booking through an agent, present a Medicare card number. The information on any of those documents can easily be checked online by any airline that has acquired access to the information. Foreign travellers could be asked to quote a visa reference. And if they do not have a visa at the time of making the booking, then it is to be quoted prior to any flight being undertaken or the booking is cancelled. That reference could be checked against Commonwealth Government records. For this process to occur the Australian and States Governments must share passport, Medicare and drivers licence identification data where relevant with all airlines and aircraft charter companies.
New Zealand citizens would be required to quote similar identification documentation to Australian citizens and residents. The New Zealand Government would be required to share primary identification data with Australia, as a condition of allowing its citizens to travel to our country visa free.
Passengers would then be required to identify themselves again during the boarding process by presenting acceptable government issued photo identification only. While requiring a passenger to present their identification when presenting their boarding pass might appear to delay the boarding process, the reality is it wouldn’t. As anyone who has every travelled economy class will testify, often after presenting your boarding pass and heading to the aircraft, you are delayed in a long line waiting for others to board and take their seats. But any potential delay can be avoided by the identification inspection being undertaken with airline staff checking the identity of travellers standing in line prior to presenting their boarding passes. This process is already undertaken by many airlines when passengers are cueing to board an international flight.
No one should be allowed to travel on a flight unless they have been identified. Know your passenger identification requirements would prevent any person seeking to travel on a name that is false or using someone else’s name. While it would not deter a potential terror suspect from travelling, it would alert authorities to the presence of that suspect or suspects at an Australian airport, provided the data was linked to our intelligence and law enforcement networks.
Monitoring the Movement of Terror Suspects
Currently, Australian intelligence and law enforcement agencies monitor the movement of people arriving and departing Australia by placing a person on “alert” using the PACE system. This system is maintained and monitored by Australian Border Force. While it was designed to enhance our ability at the international border to detect persons of interest, it could be extended to the airline booking process for domestic flights. Australian terror suspects could be uploaded into the extended domestic PACE and if linked to the booking system operated by domestic airlines, any known terror suspect would be detected when their details are entered at the time a booking is made and again when they check in and board their flight.
Authorities would then have real time intelligence on the location of a terror suspect and their intended travel to another location in Australia. A decision would then need to be made by ASIO and the police in conjunction with the airline on whether that suspect would be allowed to travel. And if so, under what conditions.
Potential Response by Airlines
Like financial institutions, airlines would baulk at the cost involved in implementing the proposed Know Your Passenger system. But it will result in a significant enhancement to the security of our domestic airline system and our intelligence monitoring of terror suspects.
And if an airline doesn’t want to implement the system or the Federal Government does not; they might find the insurance companies who ultimately cover much of the risk of air travel, institutional investors and large institutional shareholders in an airline, might impose it upon them anyway. Those institutions understand risk management better than most and would see it as a common sense move to protect their investment and financial interests.
Australia implement the following measures in relation to its domestic air travel system:
1. A know your passenger system similar to the processes currently in use in Australia involving the know your customer electronic verification of potential customers by Australian banks be implemented.
2. Passengers boarding a domestic flight in Australia be required to identify themselves using an acceptable government issued photo identification.
3. The Australian Government in conjunction with the State and Territory Governments should expand “PACE” the current system used to identify persons of interest entering or leaving Australia, to include persons booked to travel and about to travel on an Australian domestic flight.
No system is totally effective and the system proposed would only detect known suspected terrorists and supporters. But as a traveller, I would more assured of my safety, if the intelligence and law enforcement community were aware of a potential terror suspect boarding my flight and was prevented from doing so. And all Australians would support any inconvenience caused by the implementation of new measures.
Chris Douglas, APM
18 July 2017