A plane hijacking incident in the US has sparked calls for increased security measures at Australian airports as aviation experts warn that “copycats will follow”.
The 29-year-old airline worker – reportedly a baggage handler and identified as Richard Russell – managed to steal an empty plane from Seattle’s airport and co-ordinate barrel rolls and loop-the-loops before deliberately crashing the plane into a small coastal island.
The US security scare has raised questions not only as to how a ground worker was able to gain access to the aircraft, but also how someone with no prior experience as a pilot managed to fly a plane.
Pilots and air traffic controllers are subject to regular medical testing including a psychological assessment, according to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.
But there are many other airline workers who have access to the planes.
These include flight engineers and airworthiness personnel who may be approved to start the aircraft and taxi them around for maintenance purposes, as well as certain ground workers and cabin staff.
Aviation expert Professor Ron Bartsch, chairman of AvLaw, said that the increased sophistication of modern computer software and simulator programs increases the risk that someone unqualified can teach themselves online how to fly an aircraft.
“In Australia, I doubt that a baggage handler would be able to gain access to a plane cockpit. But flight engineers and airworthiness personnel certainly have access to the aircraft,” he said.
“There needs to be a greater focus on security and background checks, and some degree of ongoing psychological or general medical testing for anyone with access to aircraft and flight controls.”
An ‘insider attack’ is the greatest threat
Aviation security expert Roger Henning said he was aware of some workers being ‘swiped in’ to Australian airports without the appropriate clearance.
He said it was not a matter of if but when the industry will face Seattle copycat incidents.
“I warned of the Seattle-style risk back in 2010 at an Australian Airports Association conference.
“I demonstrated, on the big screen, how to blow up the Sydney Tower and incinerate five CBD blocks using a simulated flight from Mascot.
“I then ‘flew’ a second plane from Mascot over Rose Bay, Kirribilli House and Admiralty House into the Opera House.
“The government needs to take this seriously.”
Security flaws, poor working conditions
The four main airports in Australia made profits of more than $2 billion last year, according to the ACCC’s annual airport monitoring report.
But poor working conditions in the aviation industry are leading to a high turnover rate, according to Transport Workers Union national secretary Michael Kaine.
“This, in turn, leads to airport workers accessing secure areas of our airports without full security clearance,” he said.
“While this particular type of incident is very rare, there are serious security and safety flaws which we have been flagging with the federal government, to no avail.”
The New Daily contacted the Department of Home Affairs for comment.
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