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Diamond heist exposes aviation security gap


The movie-like heist of diamonds from the cargo hold of a Helvetic Airways Fokker 100 preparing for takeoff at Brussels Airport raises unsettling questions about airport security.

Detailed by The New York Times, the robbery exposed a clear vulnerability. One paragraph in the Times’ article in particular caught my attention:

“Jan Van Der Cruysse, a spokesman for the airport, insisted that security was entirely up to international standards, but ‘what we face is organized crime with methods and means not addressed in aviation security measures as we know them today.’ Precautions intended to combat would-be bombers and other threats, he added, could not prevent commando-style raids by heavily armed criminals. ‘This involves much more than an aviation security problem.’”

Airport security worldwide is largely focused on one goal above all others: stopping terrorists from blowing up a plane or commandeering an aircraft and using it as a weapon. That leaves a much lower level of security at other parts of the airport.

Remember the Moscow Domodedovo bombing two years ago, occurring in the international arrivals hall, just outside customs clearance, where crowds were gathered awaiting passengers who had claimed bags from flights arriving from around the world. Now this brazen robbery involving the breach of a perimeter fence, heavily-armed intruders moving in the airside area of the airport and an estimated $50 million worth of cargo swiped so quickly that authorities didn’t come close to catching the robbers at the crime scene.

Ironically, the passengers aboard the aircraft bound for Zurich had no idea what was going on. They had all presumably cleared a security checkpoint, had their luggage scanned and were sitting on an aircraft likely equipped with a locked cockpit door. The security system, insofar as preventing a terror attack on the aircraft or its passengers, had worked perfectly—even though it is unlikely the Fokker 100, being operated by Helvetic under a capacity purchase agreement with Swiss International Air Lines, was targeted for that kind of attack.

But it was targeted by an apparently sophisticated organized crime operation looking to steal millions of dollars worth of diamonds. Given the fact that such valuable jewels are flown between Brussels and Zurich regularly, this kind of threat would not seem to be a totally-unimagined one.

Threats to aircraft from bombs and hijackers certainly do exist, and should not be minimized given the horrific consequences of an airborne terror attack, but a vast global security apparatus is in place to prevent such attacks. Not so—certainly nowhere near the scale—when it comes to air cargo theft or other threats, such as bombings like the one in Moscow. These vulnerabilities could become more glaring over time, perhaps forcing authorities to take a more balanced approach to aviation security in the future.

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Aviation Daily Editor in Chief's blog

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