The magic number - upgrading baggage-screening capabilities

16 December 2016

The latest mandated explosives detection systems standard for hold baggage is due to be implemented in the EU by 2020. Sarah Williams speaks to José María Peral Pecharromán of the European Civil Aviation Conference to find out how the standard was decided upon, how it differs from the previous requirements, and how much progress airports have made when it comes to upgrading their baggage-screening capabilities.

When the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) introduced its first framework for explosives detection systems (EDS), the date was January 2002 – just a few months on from the 11 September attacks. The vulnerability of aircraft to terrorist attack had been gravely illustrated, and in December 2002 the EU would also publish regulation governing aviation security for the first time, citing the attacks as evidence that “terrorism is one of the greatest threats to the ideals of democracy and freedom and the values of peace, which are the very essence of the European Union”.

ECAC’s early EDS framework, in use from January 2003, involved three standards, with Standard 2 mandatory for all EDS installed from 1 January 2007. Almost ten years on, the threat faced by aircraft from terrorism has far from diminished, and the use of explosives plays a significant role in this. After 224 passengers and crew lost their lives on Metrojet Flight 9268 from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt on 31 October 2015, incidents in 2016 alone have included a mid-flight explosion on a plane from the Somalian capital of Mogadishu on 2 February, the 22 March bombings at Brussels Airport and Maalbeek metro station, and the 28 June suicide bombings at Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, in which 45 civilians perished.

Endeavouring to mitigate the risks posed by explosives, EDS and screening protocols continue to advance and develop. Today, airports are working to implement ECAC’s Standard 3 for EDS in hold baggage, which must be adopted before the deadline of 1 September 2020, according to regulation imposed in April 2010.

Testing standards

José María Peral Pecharromán is aviation security technical officer at ECAC and is in charge of the organisation’s Common Evaluation Process (CEP) Management Group, a programme that tests security equipment against EU and ECAC performance standards. National aviation authorities across Europe use CEP as a common reference point for certifying the equipment used in airports within their domain.

Reflecting on how the new EDS standard was arrived at, Peral Pecharromán explains how ECAC works to incorporate the varying needs of individual nations.

“We start by organising dedicated study groups with technical experts of the different ECAC member states, and we put our [respective] threats in common – what each country faces according to national threat and risk assessments,” he explains. “Then, we normally organise several trials for using the equipment from different manufacturers, and once we have these results it’s a case of achieving a compromise on the detection performance of the state-of-the-art technology and the quantity of explosives that these machines need to be able to detect.”

The modern CT machine has the advantage of clearing about 80% of all bags, versus just 70% for the traditional X-ray.

It’s this last point that tracks the evolution of aviation security standards in the most simple terms – the minimum required detection performance and the smallest quantity of explosives that must be detectable. Standard 2 explosive quantities are smaller than those for Standard 1 and smaller still in Standard 3. How this is achieved comes down to the technology used by the equipment, as well as the impact this has on detection protocol.

“There is a huge technological gap between Standard 2 and Standard 3, because the technology that we have been using for Standard 2 has mainly been X-ray multiview and X-ray with a couple of generators – but for Standard 3, most of the machines that we are testing right now are computed tomography (CT) machines, so they are able to view different parts of the baggage by creating a 3D image that allows us to screen explosives more easily.”

This, Peral Pecharromán reveals, has also meant that the manufacturers able to meet Standard 3 tend to come from a different background to Standard 2 suppliers: this is because rather than simply upgrading or enhancing an existing product, Standard 3 deals with a very different kind of machine.

Of course, it’s not the first time that CT machines have been deployed in security screening. What has changed is the point at which such machines are employed, and the impact this has on the overall length of the screening process.

In a Standard 2 set-up, the first step would involve a dual-energy X-ray, with alarmed images evaluated in step two, and those deemed necessary placed into a Standard 3 machine (normally a CT scanner) for step three; these results are again analysed (step four), with either the baggage receiving clearance or, finally, a manual examination of its contents in the presence of the passenger (step five). In the Standard 3 protocol, by contrast, the CT scanner is brought to the front end of the process so that the first two steps are skipped, making Standard 3 a three-step process overall.

Handling rates are also potentially improved with the use of Standard 3. In a white paper, intralogistics company BUEMER Group highlights that while the modern CT machine processes approximately the same number of bags per hour as a traditional dual-energy X-ray machine (around 1,500), it has the advantage of clearing about 80% of all bags, versus just 70% for the traditional X-ray.

That might sound like a fast track to a streamlined, quicker process – but Peral Pecharromán points out that there are one or two factors standing in the way. Found in recent trials conducted by CASRA, traditional 2D screeners moved to Standard 3 require longer to process an alarmed item of baggage and to decide on the next step; however, once screeners are trained in processing 3D images, he says, their performance efficiency in the long run is superior than with Standard 2 machines.

A rigorous training process will be required for security agents moving to the new standard, as the process of identifying an explosive device changes with the move to 3D images.

“In the case of 2D images, the operator normally concentrates on trying to identify all the components of an explosive device, so they need to see a mass, a cable, a battery or a shape of an explosive,” explains Peral Pecharromán. “In the case of Standard 3, we actually have a 3D model of the baggage, and so in solving the images, they need to first see a mass that is potentially an explosive device, and then see whether around that organic mass they are able to find a cable or other elements that could potentially configure a full explosive.”

As well as retraining staff, airports will also need to significantly adjust the infrastructure of their security halls to adapt to the new CT devices, which are larger and heavier than Standard 2 machines.

International cooperation

While Standard 2 systems are set to expire on 1 September 2020, a potential exemption is available. Subject to approval from the governing national aviation authority, Standard 2 EDS installed between 1 January 2011 and 1 September 2014 may continue to be employed until 1 September 2022; the authority concerned must inform the European Commission whenever this two-year extension is granted. Meanwhile, all EDS that have been or will be installed subsequent to 2014 must be Standard 3-compliant.

Some airports are already up to date – with Nice Côte d’Azur, for example, becoming the first airport to screen all baggage through Standard 3 EDS in 2014. However, while the EU deadlines may be set in stone, Peral Pecharromán anticipates that it won’t be easy for all of the region’s airports to be ready on time, owing to the constraints of supply and demand.

“The problem is that most airports changed to Standard 2 before 2012, as that’s when there was a big increase in the number of flights and the Standard 2 systems were a cheaper way of meeting those requirements at the time,” he says. “But this means that for 2020, they are all going to need to change their machines at the same time – this is going to put a lot of pressure on the manufacturers, because these machines are very difficult and time-consuming to produce.

“We could see some problems in the delivery of the machines and delays in adoption, but at the same time the deadlines were agreed a very long time ago and the European Commission has been very clear on that date.”

And while airports race to meet the 2020 deadline, with three standards already imposed in fewer than two decades, when might a Standard 4 be rolled out?

“We are not currently working on Standard 4, because just last year we approved two new standards – variations of Standard 3, which are 3.1 and 3.2,” Peral Pecharromán says. “These are not mandatory, but they are simply better in terms of the number of materials that they are able to detect.”

For 2020, airports are all going to need to change their machines at the same time, putting a lot of pressure on manufacturers.

ECAC published its most recent list of EDS tested under the CEP framework on 29 November, following meetings of the Technical Task Force (TTF) on aviation security matters and the CEP Management Group, for which Peral Pecharromán is also secretary. Another topic under discussion during the meetings, he reveals, concerned applying the same Standard 3 requirements – as mandated for hold baggage – to cabin baggage. This is a more complicated issue, because the threats in cabin baggage include not only explosives but also firearms, knives and liquids. The standards for EDS for cabin baggage were set in 2015, and the CEP tests for this category began in June 2016.

The TTF also involves non-European nations and examines how standards can be harmonised internationally. As a result, ECAC’s Standard 3.1 and Standard 3.2 are, in fact, almost identical to Standard 5.6 and Standard 7.2 respectively, in place under the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA). At the same time, Pecharromán acknowledges that each region has its own specific threats and requirements. Keeping sight of these specifics, while implementing a more unified approach to EDS internationally, will be central to keeping passengers and crew as safe as possible.

Security staff will be rigourously trained in 3D detection of explosive devices as part of Standard 3.

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