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Latest BALPA Security Group meeting

ERA continues to keep appraised of security developments that may affect the industry and members, and recently attended the latest meeting of the BALPA (British Airline Pilots Association) Security Group, held at Heathrow Airport on 8 January. The group remains an excellent resource for ERA, in particular for keeping up-to-date with the current level of threat from terrorism. 

Along with ERA, representatives from British Airways, Thomas Cook, Tui, the European Cockpit Association, Metropolitan Police and Total Resolve Training were also in attendance. Due to the sensitive nature of some of the topics on the agenda, below is a brief summary of what was discussed:

Counter terrorism update

Despite being ‘down but not out’, the threat from Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL) terrorism remains a concern and aviation is still a vulnerable target. The threat from right-wing terrorist activity continues to expand within the EU, although it appears that such organisations currently have little interest in targeting aviation. The possible use of drones used as weapons to target public areas and events was advised to be a credible threat that requires continued analysis from the anti-terrorist establishments. Additionally, concern remains over the possible attempt of a biological attack on an aircraft and thus airports will be required to place greater emphasis on checking powders and liquids and gels on passenger carry-on luggage. In the event of a successful attack, airports will need to think about establishing the necessary ‘quarantine’ protocol for the receipt of an ‘infected’ aircraft.


Following lengthy campaigning from BALPA, a Bill passed through the UK Parliament last year advising that the pointing of a laser pen at an aircraft will be deemed a criminal act with a maximum custodial sentence of up to five years for the successful capture and arrest of the perpetrator. BALPA and other stakeholders, including ERA, welcomes this development and hopes that the rest of Europe will follow a similar course of action.


Concern was expressed over CPDLC (Controller-Pilot Datalink Communications) and ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast) communication system messages that are not encrypted and as such are vulnerable to hacking. In particular, Software Defined Radio, easily purchased via the internet, is making the threat to send spoof messages to aircraft communication systems more credible and can also be used to jam a frequency.

From an airport perspective, ‘denial of service’ attacks are becoming more common with critical systems targeted including ATC, booking and Electronic Load Sheets, to name but a few. A recent example of such an attack was at Nice Airport where many systems were brought to a standstill and in some cases had to be completely replaced.

Disruptive passengers (DISPAX) and restraint techniques

The problem of DISPAX continues to be a growing problem for the industry. The meeting discussed who on board an aircraft has the authority to sanction the use of handcuffs, cable ties or other restraint mechanisms and it was agreed under SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) this responsibility normally comes under the Captain. However, for smaller regional carriers operating a short sector with only one flight attendant, it may not be practical or even possible to make such a request to the Captain for authorisation. There was interesting discussion over how important flight attendant training is in respect to both de-escalation and control and restraint, especially as there have been some high-profile incidents involving disruptive passengers who were injured as a consequence of excessive force.   

LGW drone incident

There was a brief update on the recent drone attack at London Gatwick during December, which saw the closure of the airport for three days. Uncertainty still surrounds the reason behind the attack, with anti-aviation protestors and the testing of the security response (by a terrorist organisation) presented as two of several possible theories. Although drone detection capability within the vicinity of an airport is quite robust, actually capturing the drone is more difficult. Drones simply cannot be shot down as the trajectory of bullets could present a danger to a person(s) when they return to the ground. Additionally, using Police helicopters is problematic and potentially dangerous as they are extremely vulnerable to a drone strike, especially if the tail rotor suffers an impact. Indeed, there have been cases where Air Ambulances attending road traffic accidents were forced to land prematurely due to a drone being flown by the press to film the accident!

Body scanners

The final item on the agenda was a short update regarding London Heathrow Airport, where body-scanning equipment for flight crew will go live in Terminal 3 on 11 January 2019. The equipment will utilise Millimeter Wave Scanning technology which is a whole-body imaging device used for detecting objects concealed underneath a person’s clothing using a form of electromagnetic radiation. Although no evidence exists that this system poses a threat to the human body, the option to decline the scanner and instead be ‘hand patted’ by security staff will remain in place.

The next BALPA SG meeting will take place on 5 March.

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