Australia's spy agency downgrades aviation threat level

Police patrolling Sydney Airport last month. Experts have called for tighter security measures at Australian airports, including tougher screening of ground staff and identification checks for passengers.
Police patrolling Sydney Airport last month. Experts have called for tighter security measures at Australian airports, including tougher screening of ground staff and identification checks for passengers.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Move follows arrests of terror suspects, but experts say security gaps persist at airports

SYDNEY • Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said yesterday that the country's intelligence agency had downgraded the threat level to aviation, after an alleged "Islamic-inspired" plot to bring down a plane was uncovered and disrupted.

But a pilots' union said major security gaps persist at Australian airports despite the authorities' efforts to tighten screenings.

"Pilots and cabin crew are routinely screened along with passengers, but a lot of the ground staff can access aircraft on the tarmac without the same level of scrutiny," Australian Airline Pilots' Association president Murray Butt said late on Wednesday.

"We believe it would enhance airport security if all airline staff who have access to aircraft were screened at the same level as personnel entering through the terminal."

Four men were arrested during raids in several suburbs in Sydney last Saturday and held under special terror-related powers over the alleged plot.

Yesterday, police said two of the men had been charged with terror offences. In a statement, the Australian Federal Police said the men had been charged with two counts each of "acts done in preparation for, or planning, a terrorist act".

One of the four was released on Wednesday without facing charges.

SECURITY LOOPHOLES

The scary thing is domestic airlines have no idea who is really on their aircraft. There is very little coordination. Unless you happen to be someone who really stands out, you are going to fly right through security.

MR MIKE CARMODY, former Sydney Airport security chief, to Australian Financial Review.

Police have not released details of the plot, other than it was to include an "improvised device", but will hold a news conference today.

A United States official familiar with the arrests told Reuters that the target appeared to have been a commercial flight from Sydney to the Gulf.

Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways said on Tuesday it was assisting the Australian Federal Police in the investigation.

Mr Turnbull said yesterday that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation had lowered the threat level to aviation to "possible" from "probable".

"That is because the plot has been disrupted and has been contained," he told reporters in Perth.

The country's two biggest domestic airlines, Qantas Airways and Virgin Australia, did not respond immediately to questions concerning the changed threat level.

Aviation experts have also warned about security loopholes, such as the use of private-sector security guards instead of government employees at airports, and no photo identity checks for passengers at domestic terminals.

Mr Butt said Australia needed to emulate the US requirement of photo identity checks for passengers, while a former Sydney Airport security chief, Mr Mike Carmody, said security databases should be linked to booking systems.

"The scary thing is domestic airlines have no idea who is really on their aircraft," Mr Carmody told the Australian Financial Review. "There is very little coordination. Unless you happen to be someone who really stands out, you are going to fly right through security."

In response to calls for identity checks, Mr Turnbull said yesterday that airport security measures were "constantly under review".

Transport Minister Darren Chester defended the current security measures, saying workers with access to large passenger planes should hold security cards issued only after thorough checks.

"We've endeavoured to toughen up regulations around getting access to those cards, and making sure that people who have access to the airport environment are trusted," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

"So it's been recognised that there are issues around the world in relation to the threat provided by the so-called trusted insider, and we are taking measures to keep the Australian travelling public safe."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 04, 2017, with the headline 'Australia's spy agency downgrades aviation threat level'. Print Edition | Subscribe