Can you feel the burn? No. I don’t mean burbling enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders. I am talking about the heat being generated by nearly hysterical pundits and news anchors as they pontificate and speculate about  the mid-air break up and crash of the Russian Metro Jet a week ago. A terrible thing for those on board and their families and friends who were waiting for them.

However, we still do not know if it was the result of a mechanical failure or a bomb. We are likely to find out something definitive within a couple of weeks, but even that outcome is not guaranteed.

Important to recognize that it is theoretically easy to blow up a passenger in the air. In practice, however, it has proved to be a very rare event. The most notable events linked to terrorism where a bomb exploded on board the plane are (I have not included TWA 800, although I have spoken to a couple of FBI buddies who do believe it was a bomb on board):

  1. Air India Flight 182 was an Air India flight operating on the MontrealCanadaLondonUKDelhiIndia route. On 23 June 1985, the Boeing 747-237B serving the flight (c/n 21473/330, registration VT-EFO, “Emperor Kanishka”) was destroyed by a bomb at an altitude of 31,000 feet (9,400 m). It crashed into the Atlantic Ocean while in Irish airspace. It was the first bombing of a 747 jumbo jet. A total of 329 people were killed, including 268 Canadian citizens, 27 Britons, and 24 Indians.[1]
  2. Pan Am Flight 103 was a regularly scheduled Pan Am transatlantic flight from Frankfurt to Detroit, via London and New York. On Wednesday 21 December 1988, N739PA, the aircraft operating the transatlantic leg of the route, was destroyed by a terrorist bomb, killing all 243 passengers and 16 crew on board, in what became known as the Lockerbie bombing.[3] Large sections of the aircraft crashed onto residential areas of Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 11 more people on the ground.
  3. Philippine Airlines Flight 434 (PAL434, PR434) was the route designator of a flight from Ninoy Aquino International AirportPasay City in the Philippines, to New Tokyo International Airport (now Narita International Airport), Narita, in Japan, with one stop at Mactan-Cebu International AirportCebu, in the Philippines. On December 11, 1994 the Boeing 747-283B with tail number EI-BWF was flying on the second leg of the route, from Cebu to Tokyo, when a bomb planted by terrorist Ramzi Yousef exploded, killing one passenger and damaging vital control systems. It was a part of the unsuccessful Bojinka terrorist attacks. 57-year-old Captain Eduardo “Ed” Reyes,[1] a veteran pilot, was able to land the aircraft, saving the plane and all the remaining passengers and crew.

There have been two other notable incidents where the explosives failed to detonate (all of these are on Wiki) :

  1. Richard Colvin Reid (born 12 August 1973), also known as the Shoe Bomber, is a British man who attempted on 22 December 2001 to detonate explosives packed into the shoes he was wearing, while on American Airlines Flight 63 from Paris to Miami. . . . Reid converted to Islam as a young man in prison after years as a petty criminal. Later he became radicalised and went to Pakistanand Afghanistan, where he trained and became a member of al-Qaeda.
  2. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Arabic: عمر فاروق عبد المطلب ; also known as Umar Abdul Mutallab and Omar Farooq al-Nigeri; born December 22, 1986)[3][4] popularly referred to as the “Underwear Bomber“, is a Nigerian man who, at the age of 23, confessed to and was convicted of attempting to detonate plastic explosives hidden in his underwear while on board Northwest Airlines Flight 253, en route from Amsterdam to Detroit, Michigan, on Christmas Day, 2009.[1][4][5]

Here is the uncomfortable news for you–despite these attempts, there is no universal security procedure in place to ensure that a bomb cannot be brought on board a plane. There are three major vulnerabilities:

  1. A bomb or its components brought on board a plane in a passengers carry on baggage.
  2. A bomb hidden in a suitcase that is checked and put into the belly of a plane.
  3. A bomb placed on board a plane by a member of the crew or the ground crew, including baggage handlers, servicing the plane.

So, how are we doing with improving aviation security? Still pretty sketchy.

Let’s start with the current standards for screening passengers and carry on luggage. The bomb that Ramsi Yousef built on board the Japan Air flight in December 1993 was an engineering prototype–a test bomb–to prove that he could take the components for building a bomb through security and on to a plane. The components? A Casio data watch, a d-cell battery, a dashboard light with wire (it was a small light), gun cotton (looks like cotton balls) and liquid TATP.

Ramsi was able to carry all of this through a security checkpoint and then assembled it in the bathroom. He set the timer for the watch to spark the light bulb (he broke the bulb and exposed the wires), which in turn ignited the gun cotton. The gun cotton served as the detonator and, in turn, detonated the liquid TATP. Ramsi was carrying less than 16 ounces of liquid. But the bomb packed enough punch to sever the artery in the leg of the Japanese man sitting in the seat where Ramsi had secreted the bomb before leaving the plane.

There is no good news. You can smuggle those same components today on to any plane in the world. The limit in the United States of only carrying liquid in 4 ounce bottles is a bullshit measure. All you have to do is carry four ounces of liquid in four separate bottles. You can combine those or, with TATP, detonating one will likely set off the other three.

We still do not have a technological solution at a checkpoint capable of reliably detecting the components Ramsi put on that plane. What’s the saving grace? Well, TATP is a highly unstable chemical and, if jostled, can detonate on its on.

How about detecting a bomb in a suitcase? Better news on this front. The pioneer in producing the first machine capable of detecting a bomb comparable to the one that blew a hole in the side of Pan Am 103 is Invision Technologies. While those machines, last I checked, are in most of the main airports in the United States. But they are not deployed world wide and most certainly are not deployed in Sharm el Sheik.

Compared to 27 years ago, when a suitcase with a bomb was placed on board Pan Am 103, we have made progress and can have a reasonable chance of identifying a device hidden in a suitcase.

The biggest vulnerability, in my view, are the people who service the airplanes and place bags in the hold. These people need to have full security backgrounds before they are hired and then, once in place, need to be regularly monitored. That is not taking place.

Here’s the bottomline. Aviation security remains a low priority. If the economically developed countries combine their resources and make security a priority, we can actually increase the likelihood that no more planes will be blown out of the sky. Sadly, it takes a major crisis to motivate the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Russia and China to do something significant.


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Larry C. Johnson is a former analyst at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, who moved subsequently in 1989 to the U.S. Department of State, where he served four years as the deputy director for transportation security, antiterrorism assistance training, and special operations in the State Department's Office of Counterterrorism. He left government service in October 1993 and set up a consulting business. He currently is the co-owner and CEO of BERG Associates, LLC (Business Exposure Reduction Group) and is an expert in the fields of terrorism, aviation security, and crisis and risk management, and money laundering investigations. Johnson is the founder and main author of No Quarter, a weblog that addresses issues of terrorism and intelligence and politics. NoQuarterUSA was nominated as Best Political Blog of 2008.