When it comes to combatting terrorist bombers and hijackers on airplanes, Canada has a secret weapon that is the envy of every nation: our sky marshals, a covert cadre of elite RCMP officers. Armed undercover operatives, they are rigorously trained to detect and eliminate any and every threat to passengers, flight crew and aircraft, and they must be re-certified twice a year. “What happens at 30,000 feet must end very quickly,” the officer in charge of the Canadian Air Carrier Protective Program told Maclean’s on condition of anonymity. “The only way to do that is to be very, very good at your job.”
Canadian sky marshals are so good at their job, in fact, that they have trained Thailand’s unit, and played a major role in creating the French, Dutch, Czech, Polish and British in-flight security programs. Now even Israel, whose Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv is considered the gold standard of airport security, wants to learn from Canadian sky marshals. “Their training is first-class, next to none,” says Rafi Sela, president of AR Challenges, a security consulting agency active in Israel and North America, who has chastised other aspects of Canadian air transport security. “The air marshal program in Canada,” he told Maclean’s, “is the best in the world.”
But can the same be said about other security measures at Canadian airports? As hyper-competent as our air marshals may be, they are a last line of defence. Before a terrorist meets them, a lot of other airport security measures must fail—or be missing altogether. Ever since a Nigerian linked to al-Qaeda tried to bomb a plane flying from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, Canadian airports have come under scrutiny by esteemed aviation experts and frustrated travellers alike. They condemn the ever-expanding prohibited items list and mandatory pat-downs of people going to the United States—after Dec. 25, Toronto and other Canadian cities had the worst travel delays in the world, according to the International Air Transport Association. New security measures, such as the 44 body scanners, each worth $250,000, that will soon be delivered to major Canadian airports, are being called everything from a knee-jerk reaction by the federal government to a waste of money. If a terrorist stuffed explosives in his body cavities, this cutting-edge technology probably wouldn’t catch him, according to Mathieu Larocque of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA), a division of Transport Canada in charge of pre-screening passengers and baggage.
Even though Canada wasn’t directly involved in the Christmas Day incident, what happened matters to us because so many flights that originate here head to the U.S., and the two countries share a similar approach to aviation security. Our realities are intertwined, and we are now living in a “post-Dec. 25” society, as Jim Facette, president of the Canadian Airports Council, puts it. “I don’t know if threat levels have changed, but what has changed is the airport experience.” There is a growing sense throughout the global security community that while traditional tools such as metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs are important in a “multi-layered approach” to air transport security, they aren’t the only or even the best ways of fighting terrorists.
New security models, such as what is done at Ben Gurion, are getting lots of attention. The Israeli focus is on behaviour screening, a controversial method of identifying danger by analyzing how people answer benign questions. Transport Canada is preparing to issue a $400,000 tender for a company to help develop such a program. There are also calls for Canada to move away from just “airplane security” toward access control and surveillance outside of and throughout the airport. Finally, futuristic technologies in the works, including “smart seat belts” that enable flight crew to put passengers in lockdown, and “brain fingerprinting” that senses travellers’ intentions, have ignited debates over the marginal safety benefits relative to the massive cost.
How much security is enough, and what tools work best, is almost impossible to say because “we don’t know how many attempts there have been that we’ve successfully foiled,” says Mark Salter, a security expert and political science professor at the University of Ottawa. Intelligence agents don’t exactly publicize that information. “One of the core conundrums about airport security or counter-terrorism is that we don’t know what the bottom denominator is.”
One thing is for sure: even the finest in-flight operatives don’t make up for other security measures that are ineffective in stopping radical thugs from boarding planes. So after air transport authorities have spent billions, brought in increasingly tedious and annoying rules, and made flying an infuriating hassle for the 99.99 per cent of innocent travellers, we still don’t know just how much safer we are. It’s hard to tell where the holes are until someone walks through one. But “if you have a gap in security,” says Sela, “you have no security.”
O n Dec. 27, Kim McInnes and her family were scheduled to leave Toronto for San Juan at 10:15 a.m. They arrived at Pearson International Airport a couple of hours early. Check-in took about 15 minutes, and then Kim, her husband and their two teens made their way toward customs and security. That’s when the family got their first glimpse of the madness that had beset Pearson in the aftermath of the Christmas Day bombing attempt: mobs waiting to get through. Airport personnel passed out water bottles for fear people would faint. Police arrived, in case things got unruly. “It was obvious that security was totally overwhelmed,” says McInnes. “People had no clue what was going on.”