Flight MH370: Missing pieces of travel security puzzle

Flight MH370: Missing pieces of travel security puzzle
Malaysia's acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein (C) attends a news conference about the missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 13, 2014. Standing on the left is Department of Civil Aviation Director General Azharuddin Abdul Rahman and on the right is Malaysia Airlines Chief Executive Officer Ahmad Jauhari Yahya.


THE puzzle of the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft offers a grim reminder of how air travel security and safety remains a work in progress.

As chilling as the prospect of never getting full answers about MH370 is the suspicion that despite the transformation of protocols well over a decade after the 9/11 attacks, dangerous gaps still exist. Even retracing events is proving to be difficult with conflicting versions arising.

What started out as an ordinary uneventful flight turned without the slightest notice into that dreaded moment when a blip disappears inexplicably from a radar screen. With little resolution days after the plane's disappearance, the agony of the families of those on board is profound and the anguish of their nations has drawn the region's sympathy and support.

Gratifyingly, no effort has been spared to help trace flight MH370, with the Malaysian authorities exploring all leads and 10 countries, including Singapore, continuing the search in the South China Sea and Malacca Strait. In the same spirit and with similar urgency, countries in the region and beyond should join hands to study how cross-border security can be improved.

To be sure, international travel security has made great strides.

For example, about 20 layers of aviation security have been developed at United States airports, including the use of advanced imaging technology to screen passengers and rigorous systems to check all baggage for explosives.

This is a far cry from the time when non-ticketed visitors were allowed through airline gates and cockpit doors were left unlocked.

Even so, weak links still exist in the system like low-tech passports and inadequate identity verification processes. Not all countries use the biometric system (an embedded computer chip to store information like fingerprints and face or iris recognition) and photographs in travel documents, as in identity cards, are often hopelessly outdated.

It is suspected that two MH370 passengers had boarded the plane with the use of stolen European passports. Even though Interpol has indicated that they were unlikely to be terrorists, it remains troubling that "only a handful of countries" routinely screen for stolen or lost passports against the international law enforcement organisation's database.

The blacklist, which is available to all 190 member countries, apparently included the two stolen passports uncovered by MH370 investigators.

Of course, security measures will have to strike a balance between preserving ease of movement and maintaining watertight systems at considerable cost. What can make a difference to outcomes is greater international cooperation in vital areas including intelligence and risk mitigation.

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