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Australian airlines likely to push back against security crackdown

by The Australian

Australian airlines are likely to push back against calls for tougher and more uniform passenger and baggage screening which could reverse their lucrative cost savings programs.

Regional airlines have already told the federal government they believe the current security demands imposed on country airports are too onerous, and would be expected to resist any requirement to extend screening to smaller airports.

Big airlines including Qantas and Virgin have made huge investments in automating passenger and baggage check-in on domestic flights to save on counter staff numbers, and would lose those economies if required to go back to manually checking in passengers and asking them for photo identification.

The alleged Islamic terror plot claimed to have involved a plan to bring down an airliner using some form of bomb or toxic gas device has renewed longstanding claims of glaring gaps in Australian airport security. The four men arrested over the alleged plot were identified on Monday.

Terrorism and security expert Carl Ungerer pointed out years ago that some Australian regional airports which handle hundreds of thousands of passengers a year on regular commercial services have little or no security screening, with passenger metal detectors and baggage X-rays either non-existent or not used all the time.

“Terrorists will always look for the weakest point in any security system,” Dr Ungerer warned in 2011.

“The current danger is someone taking a bomb on board.”

But the Regional Aviation Association, representing smaller airlines, in their 2015 submission to a Senate inquiry into airport and aviation security said regional aviation was only barely profitable and big city style security systems were unwarranted.

“Proscriptive legislation tends to create an inefficient one size fits all approach which … required expensive processes and equipment to be introduced into airports and for aircraft operators where the threat does not warrant such measures,” the association said it its submission.

Other security analysts have pointed out that despite the increased measures introduced since Saturday, even at the major airports domestic passengers can still book a ticket online in any name, get a boarding pass automatically at a kiosk, drop check-in bags at an automatic bag drop, and get on a flight without having to once identify themselves to airline ground staff or security.

At Melbourne Airport on Monday travellers were subjected to random bag searches before check in but some passengers felt security could be further strengthened with photo ID requirements on domestic flights.

Toula Sella arrived two and a half hours early for her flight with Virgin to Mildura on Monday but said she still had concerns about security.

She said she thought the current system where people only need to type in a name at a kiosk or a frequent flyer card number was unsafe.

“Anyone could take my card and check in as me,” she said.

Such procedures would be unthinkable on domestic flights in the US, said equity analyst Adam Fleck from Morningstar, saying US passengers are strictly identified at various points in the check-in and security process.

Qantas spokesman Stephen Moynihan would not say how many check-in staff the airline had saved through introducing the kiosks and automated bag drops since 2010, or how the airline would feel if it were required to abandon them and bring back manual check-in and photo ID.

But Mr Fleck said the cost savings for Qantas from reducing check-in staff was enormous.

“Manpower ends up being one of the largest expenses for an airline,” he said.

Mr Fleck cautioned that Australian passengers might want to think twice about whether they wanted the more intrusive US style domestic airport security, and said “Qantas would push through any increased cost from security or personnel onto the customer.”


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