In the week from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve routine checks of carry-on luggage at major US airports revealed that 46 concealed guns were being carried by passengers attempting to board flights.
Of these 37 weapons were already loaded and 13 had a round chambered and ready to discharge.
This brought the total for 2015 to 2,603 concealed guns – a 17.7 per cent increase on 2014 and the highest figure since 2005 when the numbers were first collated by the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), an agency of the US Department for Homeland Security. In that year ‘only’ 660 concealed guns were discovered.
In addition, the agency points out: “Our officers also regularly find firearm components, realistic replica firearms, bb and pellet guns, airsoft guns, brass knuckles, ammunition, batons, stun guns, small pocket knives and many other prohibited items too numerous to note.”
But the preliminary data for 2015, made available on the TSA’s blog this week, does not imply any raised terrorism threat. “In many cases, people simply forgot they had these items,” it says.
Image of some of the concealed guns carried through US airports over the Christmas period
While penalties for those who are caught out can vary from state to state, the average fine is about $3,000 with up to $11,000 for repeat offenders. But criminal charges could be pressed in states with stricter gun control laws.
While the surge in the numbers of guns found on the near-two million passengers who fly from US airports each day could be due to the screening becoming more effective, this is not necessarily the case.
Covert tests carried out last year by Homeland Security agents found that in 67 out of the 70 operations at major US airports, TSA screening staff failed to uncover deliberately smuggled guns and fake explosives.
European airports, moreover, have faced similar lapses. Just over a year ago German media revealed that an undercover European Commission (EC) investigation at Frankfurt Airport reportedly found that about 50 per cent of the time screeners were unable to detect guns, explosives and other dangerous objects deliberately hidden in carry-on and hold luggage.
Although the EC declined to comment officially at the time, it is understood that airport staff were given extra training in how to spot weapons on X-ray screens.
Yet there are those in European aviation that query the conventional security strategy based mainly on physically identifying threats. Olivier Jankovec, director-general of Airports Council International Europe, which represents nearly 500 airports in 45 European countries, believes “the security mindset remains much too focused on detection and not enough on using intelligence and data.”
Hence the provisional deal reached by European Parliament and European Council negotiators early last month - for an EU directive regulating the use of airline Passenger Name Record (PNR) data to “help the authorities fight terrorism and serious crime” - is regarded by many as a step in the right direction, even if it has taken four years to reach this stage. A vote on the directive in the European Parliament is scheduled for early this year.
Yet progress remains glacially slow on that other controversial cornerstone of 21st century aviation security: the restrictions on carrying liquids on board aircraft.
This year will be the tenth anniversary of the introduction of the supposedly ‘temporary’ rules governing liquids, aerosols and gels (LAGs in security speak) following the arrest of two dozen men in August 2006 over the alleged plot to blow up ten North American bound flights out of Heathrow with a new type of ‘liquid bomb’ assembled and detonated in-flight.
By mid-2010 a total of 12 people had been convicted in seven trials for terrorism-related offences in connection with the plot.
Advice on Gatwick's website regarding restrictions of liquids in hand luggage
Although no lives were lost, billions of global airline passengers have been inconvenienced for the past decade. And while there has been some relaxation of the rules in recent years - especially for bottles larger than 100ml of alcohol or perfume bought from airport duty-free shops and carried through security in special bags (known as STEBS – Security Tamper Evident Bags) – any progress remains slow.
Yet the EC was rather more optimistic about the potential benefits of using new screening technology of liquids when it said on its website in mid-2013: “The goal is to come to a complete lifting of the ban [on liquids] by screening all LAGS as of January 2016.”
Don’t get your hopes up just yet.