Monday, February 17, 2014

Ethiopian Airlines Hijacking Shows Continuing Shortfalls in Security: Threat to Global Aviation Still Seen From Industry Insiders

The Wall Street Journal

By  Daniel Michaels

Updated Feb. 17, 2014 3:03 p.m. ET

The hijacking Monday of an Ethiopian Airlines jetliner by a co-pilot seeking asylum illustrates a security wild card still facing global aviation despite years of efforts to combat terrorism: the inside threat.

Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, authorities world-wide have added layers of screening to stop passengers, crew or staff from carrying weapons or dangerous materials onto airplanes.

But people linked to airlines and airports around the world have still been implicated over recent years in plotting terrorist attacks, smuggling drugs and brazen theft. Security specialists say the cases show that aviation insiders still have ample opportunities to sabotage flights.

"We spend so much time in aviation safety on checking passengers for prohibitive items at checkpoints that we forget all other screening issues," said Philip Baum, managing director of Green Light Ltd., an aviation-security consulting firm in London.

"Ultimately it is what is going on in someone's head that matters, and even more so when they are in control of a plane," Mr. Baum said.

In Monday's case, the co-pilot was seeking asylum, according to Swiss authorities, and not looking to harm anyone. The Boeing 767, carrying 202 people, landed safely at Geneva airport after the co-pilot commandeered Ethiopian Flight 702, en route from Addis Ababa to Rome, when the captain went to use the toilet. None of the passengers or crew were harmed.

The Ethiopian government identified the co-pilot as 31-year-old Haile-Medhin Abera Tegegn. He has worked as a pilot for Ethiopian Airlines for five years, said Information Minister Redwan Hussein.

The incident Monday was unusual but not unprecedented. Nine passenger planes have been hijacked by pilots seeking asylum, according to the Aviation Safety Network, a website that tracks air incidents. Many were Cuban flights diverted to the U.S.

In three other cases since the late 1990s, however, pilots are suspected of having deliberately crashed perfectly functioning passenger jets without any warning to air-traffic controllers.

Pilots are generally screened before hiring and repeatedly assessed while on the job. The frequency and thoroughness varies by airline and country. The Ethiopian information minister said in an interview that in the wake of the hijacking, the country had no immediate plans to re-examine its vetting of pilots or other airline regulations.

"These kind of issues aren't very common," Mr. Hussein said. "It happens once in a blue moon."

Investigators have publicly indicated that the captain of a LAM Mozambique Airlines regional jet that went down in Namibia in November, killing all 33 aboard, put the plane into a dangerously steep dive seemingly on purpose and continued adjusting the controls with the intention of causing a crash.

Data retrieved from cockpit and flight-data recorders, according to investigators, indicate the Embraer 190 regional jet dove toward the ground at roughly 6,000 feet a minute. The captain didn't issue a mayday call, they said, and disregarded multiple instrument warnings of an impending crash.

In December 1997, a Singaporese Silkair Boeing 737 flight from Jakarta to Singapore with 104 people onboard crashed in Indonesia. Indonesian investigators never determined the cause of the crash. But experts at the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, which ran simulations and otherwise participated in the investigation, concluded the most likely scenario was that the captain committed suicide after facing financial and professional problems.

Almost two years later, EgyptAir Flight 990, with 217 people onboard, crashed off Nantucket, Mass., shortly after taking off from New York for Cairo. The NTSB concluded that the only sequence of events that fit the evidence was that one of the pilots put both engines into idle and his "flight control inputs" put the plane in a nosedive. The NTSB said the reason for his actions wasn't determined. Egyptian authorities challenged the U.S. analysis.

In all three crashes, only a single pilot was in the cockpit when the plane started plummeting toward the ground.

When one pilot leaves the cockpit for a bathroom break or some other reason, many carriers require a flight attendant to enter and stay there until the cockpit door is opened again. There have been cases of the remaining pilot becoming confused about how to reopen the door. Such issues have been highlighted since cockpit security was enhanced world-wide in the wake of the September 2001 airborne terrorist attacks in the U.S.

While pilots crashing commercial airlines are exceedingly rare, many other aviation employees on the ground can also pose threats to flights. Background checks and security assessments of aviation employees who work on the ground, particularly those not in direct contact with airplanes, are often less thorough than for pilots, say air-security specialists.

A report by the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy from 2011 cited the "insider threat" as a continuing danger to aviation. The report cited insider plots in New York, Jakarta and Britain as examples of the risk.

In the British case, a U.K. jury in February 2011 found former British Airways software engineer Rajib Karim guilty of plotting terrorist acts and using his job to prepare them. Prosecutors had charged Mr. Karim, now 35 years old, with what they called a "chilling plot" to use his job to blow up a passenger plane. They said that in encrypted computer messages, he offered to get a cabin crew job and help get a "package" onto a U.S.-bound plane.

And one year ago, masked robbers disguised as police and carrying automatic weapons stole more than $50 million in diamonds from the belly of a plane about to leave Brussels Airport. The timing and precision of their audacious raid indicated they almost certainly had help from people who knew details of airport operations, people familiar with the investigation have said.

Dozens of people were arrested in May in relation to the case, but Belgian prosecutors haven't released details of their investigation.

In September, French authorities at Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris said they uncovered a shipment of 3,050 pounds of cocaine, with a street value around $270 million, on a flight from Caracas. French and Venezuelan authorities arrested more than nine people, including three members of the Venezuelan National Guard, for their involvement.

The authorities said the shipment, hidden in 31 suitcases with false identification tags, was taken off the plane separately from real passengers' bags and to a warehouse. The special handling indicates the smugglers included insiders in both Caracas and Paris.

The U.S. Military Academy report on threats to aviation noted that insider threats "become markedly worse at non-Western airports in regions such as West Africa or South Asia, where local authorities' ability to effectively screen prospective airport employees is frequently negligible due to incomplete or poorly structured terrorist and criminal intelligence databases."

—Simegnish Lilly Yekoye, Marietta Cauchi, Heidi Vogt and Andy Pasztor contributed to this article.


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