Airport security: Only half the X-ray screeners pass 'explosive' test

In October 2019, when the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) held its last screening test at its regional office in Delhi, it assessed 40 security officers of various airlines on their proficiency in detecting dangerous items in checked-in baggage. Only 21 of them passed the test. Many who failed were posted at airports where there are no inline x-ray machines that screen baggage for hazardous items before they are loaded on aircraft. At these airports, passengers have to queue up at the less sophisticated x-ray machines of their respective airlines where the airlines security staff is responsible for screening the baggage before it is loaded onto the aircraft. While most of the metro airports in India and some sensitive ones like Amritsar have inline x-ray screeners, while smaller airports such as Coimbatore, Raipur and many others still lack these machines.  

Of all those tested at the Delhi regional office, security officers and executives belonging to Spicejet fared the worst. Of the six Spicejet personnel assessed, only one cleared the test. The airline’s security officer posted at Jaisalmer, a military airport, failed the test. Spicejet’s spokesperson said, “SpiceJet’s security training standards are extremely high as we do not compromise on security and safety. In the last examinations, our staff's passing percentage has been in excess of 75 per cent. Staff that is not able to qualify is subjected to the entire training modules again.” Six of the nine Indigo security staff passed the test. Indigo’s spokesperson did not respond to queries till the time of publication. In 2017, BCAS had suspended the airline's aviation security training centre’s licence after it was found guilty of repeating the same set of question papers for months.

Six of the 11 Air India personnel tested managed to scrape through. These security personnel of various airlines were being assessed on various parameters in practical situations. The test involves introducing live explosives, dummy grenades and detonators, replicas of weapons like guns, pistols, mines, and improvised explosive devices, in addition to other prohibited items like copra and alcohol that a passenger is likely to carry. According to BCAS guidelines for testing inline X-ray screeners, five bags with dangerous goods need to be used during the test as the airline’s security staff screens them on the monitor as they pass through the machine. Four of the five bags would have dangerous and prohibited items, with one containing either dummy or live explosives. While tests for x-ray screeners are carried out at the BCAS regional offices, those for inline screeners are carried out at airports in real time. A BCAS official said, “We train both CISF personnel and airline staff and test them regularly. Some testing takes place in real time airport environments. Our training and testing is rigorous and as per international standards. There should be no doubt about the security of any airport in the country.” While it is true that CISF personnel also fail these tests, their proficiency in screening for potentially dangerous items is better than airline staff. In October, both CISF and BCAS personnel were subject to x-ray screening tests as well. Like airline staff, 40 CISF personnel were tested. Only six failed, as compared to 19 airline staff who failed the same test.  

More than a week after the Delhi tests were carried out, two other tests were held for airline security staff in Chennai and Kolkata. In Chennai, of the 27 airline security staff assessed, 19 passed the test. Many of those tested were posted at smaller airports such as Trichy, Madurai and Coimbatore, where airline staff are responsible for screening the baggage before it is loaded onto the aircraft. In Kolkata, 24 of the 35 personnel assessed passed the test. They were posted at airports like Bagdogra, Pasighat, Imphal, Ranchi, Agartala, Dibrugarh, Jorhat and many others where sophisticated inline screeners are still not installed.

In February 2018, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) had awarded a $50 million contract to US-based company Smiths Detection for installing these machines at 11 locations in nine airports, including Kolkata and Chennai. Bigger airports like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad have had these machines for some years now. With such abysmal results of x-ray screeners, there is a big question mark over security of planes and passengers at smaller airports. With the Modi government boosting regional connectivity through its UDAN scheme, more people are flying through smaller airports than ever.  In 2019-20, some 1.2 million passengers flew domestically every month – more than twice the numbers who flew in 2014 when the Modi government first came to power.


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