7 Dec 2015

Warning against airport security over-reaction

8:42 am on 7 December 2015

Regional airports around New Zealand are warning the government not to over-react to calls for drastic changes to domestic aviation security.

The Transport Ministry is carrying out a review, and the pilots' union want all passengers and luggage screened.

But airport managers in provincial centres say passengers will wear the costs of significant change.

Marlborough Airport chief executive Dean Heiford said improvements were needed, but cost would have to be taken into account.

"Airports are users-pays so someone has to pay and ultimately that's the travelling public - whether that's through surcharges on their tickets, whether airlines pick up the charge or even whether the government puts something towards it."

Mr Heiford said security awareness was better than it had been.

"At the end of the day we all have to trust each other when we're travelling, whether that's boats, trains or aircraft, but we all have to be a bit more aware and become more careful."

A planned expansion at Whangarei airport would allow room for increased security measures.

Manager Mike Chubb said work was about to start on renovating and enlarging the terminal buildings. He said the addition would provide room for a boarding lounge and any security equipment required to check departing passengers and their luggage.

Nelson Airport was also planning a significant upgrade, that included allowance for screening facilities that existed in the draft design.

However, manager Rob Evans cautioned against any over-reactions.

"I don't think anyone's saying we don't want good security. I think what we're saying is we want to be careful and pragmatic about ... what's achievable and what's sustainable and how we'd roll it out.

"An improved culture is something we'd support but we have to be careful about the level we're trying to achieve for the apparent risk."

He said improvements could be made that were less onerous than screening, or building high fences around airport compounds.

Mr Evans said a simpler way of improving security would be to make everyone working at the airport wear ID tags.

However, the union representing New Zealand's airline pilots and air traffic controllers said security at the country's regional airports was well below standard.

Pilots Association senior technical officer Dave Reynolds said smaller aircraft operators should not think they were immune to potential threats.

"I would suggest if we were - any country were - to lose a number of small aircraft in a matter of a day, that would make headlines and have a massive impact. We don't want to see any terrorist atrocity in New Zealand but at the moment security for regional operations is just not up to it, quite frankly."

Mr Reynolds said the pilots association wanted a stronger voice in the review, and that better engagement with the government would give it a better understanding of the potential threat.

Seven years ago Asha Ali Abdille used knives she carried on board to threaten the pilots and passengers on a commercial flight from Blenheim.

Abdille, who was subsequently sentenced to nine years' jail, approached the cockpit, thrust a knife towards the pilot and told him to fly the plane to Australia. She also threatened to crash the plane and kill everyone onboard.

The serious incident triggered a security review but the government decided then against screening of passengers at smaller airports because of cost. The recent heightened global terror threat has prompted another review, which Transport Minister Simon Bridges said was a "health check" of the current system.

He said the review was a consideration of any current or emerging threats or system vulnerabilities, and would inform the ministry's view on whether it needed to refine existing domestic aviation security.

Mr Bridges said input was sought from many aviation stakeholders, including the pilots' association.

"I met with the New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association in late July, to discuss a range of aviation matters, including its views on domestic aviation security and am happy to meet with them again on this issue."

Mr Bridges said he understood the ministry intended to invite it to a further meeting early next year to discuss a range of aviation matters of mutual interest, including aviation security.

Dunedin Airport chief executive Richard Roberts said all options were on the table, and it was important that airports had been included in the discussion.

"Dunedin and all others (airports) and airlines are all working with the government to provide information on what they may or may not need to do.

"It could be that they impose different conditions on the way we provide security awareness training. It's really an opportunity to feed information to see if the changed threat level should result in a change of compliance," Mr Roberts said.

Mr Bridges was expecting final advice from the Transport Ministry in the New Year.