No Fear in Flying – Aviation Security and Travel Risks

The importance of aviation security has grown in correlation with the growth of the aviation industry. More people seek to travel more frequently for business and pleasure each year. The last year has seen some significant disruption for frequent flyers, as governments and other intergovernmental agencies have continually sought to make flying a safe means to travel. The risk of terror attack has posed a constant barrier to achieving this goal. Airports and airlines are in a constant battle of balance between providing a pleasurable experience for their travellers, whilst at the same time ensuring stringent security measures are effective and thorough without causing costly delays. With some of the biggest airports around the world having hundreds of thousands of passengers pass through their gates on a daily basis, this is no small feat. The recent anti-terror arrests in Australia are an interesting development in light of the recent lifting of the electronics ban imposed by the US and the UK. On 30 July 2017, a number of raids were conducted and four arrests made in some of Sydney’s suburbs. The action was undertaken in response to a bomb plot involving an aircraft. One of the suspected bomb plotters had planted the device in a piece of luggage and had asked his brother to take it on his flight on 15 July 2017 from Sydney to Abu Dhabi on an Etihad Airways flight. The luggage was never checked in and left the airport with the suspected bomb plotting brother, the reasons for this are unconfirmed but it is thought the luggage may have been too heavy. Australian authorities have emphasised that at no point was the luggage security-screened as it was not checked in. The group attempted to build a second explosive device, which would disperse a colourless toxic gas; however, foreign intelligence agencies had informed Australia before the plan was enacted. The Islamic State are believed to be behind the terror plot.

So What was the Electronics Ban About?

The ban came into effect in March 2017, and prohibited passengers from carrying their larger electronic devices with them onto the plane, due to fears of a terrorist plot to plant explosives in them. In February 2016, a Daallo Airlines Airbus was targeted when an explosive device (believed to be a laptop) detonated, sucking the perpetrator out of the hole in the fuselage. Fortunately, the aircraft was able to land at Mogadishu airport successfully. The 2017 ban applied to specific countries in the Middle East and their direct flights to the US and United Kingdom, although the UK did not apply the ban to as many countries as the US. The attempt to mitigate the threat of “innovative methods” of terrorists led to an inconvenience for many travellers and a direct financial impact on numerous Middle Eastern airlines. Once airports had implemented extra security measures, the ban was lifted. Abu Dhabi Airport, the airport hub which serves Etihad Airways, was the first airport to meet the requirements and have the electronics ban lifted in early July 2017.

Laptops aren’t the First Bomb Threat on a Plane

Reports on the recent terror arrests in Australia, have stated the IED (Improvised Explosive Device) was disguised as a meat mincer. There is a discussion to be had over potential innovative methods used by terror groups, such as the Islamic State, when ordinary objects are turned into lethal explosive devices. Checking a meat mincer onto a plane is a way to disguise an IED on an aircraft, although it has been reported by Australian police they device would have been picked up if it had been screened. The explosive device embarked on the Metrojet flight from Sharm-el-Sheikh to St Petersburg in October 2015, was reported to be in an aluminium can, according to ISIS who claimed the attack. International investigators of the incident agree there was most likely an explosive device planted in the cabin, although the form of it has not been confirmed. In 2010, Dubai police intercepted printers which contained explosives, and were on route to being shipped to the United States. The plot originated in Yemen and was implemented by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The concern for aviation security therefore, is that as long as the threat posed by terror groups remains, innovative methods of attack will continue to weaponise ordinary objects to avoid security detection. To mitigate this, comprehensive screening processes have become central to ensuring the safety of travellers. The 2001 shoe-bomber plot, as well as the 2009 explosive underwear attempt, are both examples of attempted terror attacks on aircraft using innovative methods to conceal explosive devices; although both attempts failed. Information-sharing between foreign intelligence agencies has also become increasingly important, as demonstrated in the recent uncovering of the plot in Australia.

Identifying a Security Threat, and Getting it Wrong

The ongoing threat of terrorism has led to an increased awareness and suspicion towards certain travellers which fit the stereotype. In August 2016, a Syrian woman was detained at Doncaster Airport in the United Kingdom under the Terrorism Act, as the book she was reading on the aircraft on Syrian art and culture, appeared suspicious to the Thomson Airways crew. An inconvenient and distressing experience for the traveller, but also a potential act of discrimination based on her ethnicity. On the other side of the spectrum, a British passenger taken hostage on an Egypt Air flight in March 2016, took a smiling picture with the hijacker who was wearing an explosive belt. Although the device was later proven to be fake, and the hijacker motivated by personal issues, the passenger’s decision to throw caution away in regard to his own safety, posed a significant threat to the remaining hostages. His desire to see the device closer up, could have proven a provocative move, and was unnecessary considering the ongoing negotiations that were being held with the hijacker.

What Can a Traveller Do About the Security Threat?

Airports and airlines adopt appropriate security measures according to the assessed threat level at the time. However, all airports and airlines still carry some level of risk. Some airlines may be targeted for who they represent, whilst some airports are vulnerable to smuggling suspicious devices. At a minimum, travellers should avoid using air carriers with poor safety and security records in general. It is also important to be aware that airport security in developing countries may not have the same stringent security standards as London Heathrow, for example. When booking, try to select an emergency exit seat on the aircraft, or one near it, for both safety and security reasons. When packing, it is important to be aware of certain items which may identify you as a target to a hijacker, such as clothing carrying company logos, company paperwork, membership cards of political or action groups, offensive reading materials, expensive jewellery and other valuable items. If possible, these items should be placed in checked luggage or left at a safe location at home or the office.

At the Airport

Travellers should always ensure they arrive with time enough to not only check-in on the flight, but also proceed through security. Security screenings can become particularly congested during peak holidays. Once checked-in, travellers should proceed directly to security and avoid waiting in lobby areas in departures or afterwards in arrivals halls. The terror attacks on Brussels Airport in March 2016, and again at Atatürk Istanbul Airport in June 2016, both targeted these areas, which are easily accessible. In the event an airport terminal is evacuated, follow the instructions of local security personnel to the area you are being directed to. If possible, stay in the centre of the group to limit exposure to potential firearms or explosives. If there is a live shooter, our Run, Hide, Tell Guide provides some helpful information on what to do. If you feel a traveller is acting suspiciously, report your suspicions to local authorities or an airline employee.

In the Air

Security terror threats towards airborne aircraft range from already planted explosive devices to hijackings. Not every hijacker is a suicide bomber and may be motivated by other political goals. In the event the hijacker is suicidal, it is recommended to join with other passengers and attempt to overpower the hijackers by any means possible. Ultimately, in order for the hijacker to gain full control of an aircraft, he has to gain entry to the flight deck. With reinforced doors and cabin cameras, it is easier for pilots to monitor and control access. Within the cabin, the initial stage of a hijacking is one of the most dangerous as hijackers seek to assert their authority through aggression or violence. Hostages in this situation are advised to follow crew instructions and avoid antagonising any hijackers throughout the hostage situation. Do not talk with fellow passengers as this may appear suspicious to hijackers, or there may be potential a passenger could provide your personal information to a hijacker in order to gain favour or release. Travellers should also be aware of the possibility for “sleepers”; accomplices to the hijackers who have not yet made their presence known on board. It is important to remain calm for the duration, alert to your surroundings, and maintain a positive mindset. Limit the amount of fluids consumed in order to avoid regular visits to the lavatory. In many cases, there have been successful negotiated releases of hostages from a plane. However, in the event that the aircraft is stormed by security forces, travellers should remain as low as possible whilst keeping their hands visible. This is another critical stage of an aircraft hijacking which may result in some injuries or fatalities.


Airports and aircraft are high value targets for terrorists. Due to their increased security measures, improved innovative methods for developing discrete explosive devices are likely to continue. This kind of planned attack does require a significant amount of preparation and coordination, making it more vulnerable to early detection, as seen in the recent Sydney arrests. However, in the meantime, flying travellers will better be able to prepare themselves if they remember:
  • When packing, leave behind unnecessary items or documents which may be offensive to others.
  • Maintain a low profile. For example: avoid wearing company logos.
  • Choose a seat as close to an emergency exit as possible.
  • Ensure you arrive in good time for your flights, in order to go through security screening.
  • Avoid waiting in the arrivals or departures halls, proceed directly to security screening or leave the airport as a priority.
  • If you are concerned and feel someone is acting suspiciously, report it to the nearest authority figure.
  • In a hostage situation, remain calm and do not antagonise the hostage-takers.