From 2000 to 2003 I lived in Singapore, and from 2003 to 2007 I lived in Manila. Anyone who has been to both cities knows what a dichotomy they represent on a variety of levels – from degree of development to cost of living to perceived level of safety and comparative chaos involved in getting through the day.
Asia is of course about as diverse a landscape as exists on the planet, and these two cities are truly representative of just how different an air traveler’s experience can be in places just three hours flying distance apart. Singapore exudes stability and confidence while Manila feels like perpetual uncertainty. The same may also be said of air travel security in Asia. During my time living there I traveled to more than 20 countries and have seen every conceivable version of airport security, from the gleaming, fabulous airports in cities such as Beijing and Seoul to a dirt strip in rural Papua New Guinea. A couple of years ago I was in rural PNG on business and went to a one room air terminal that had a single security guard, armed with a machete and sling shot! No x-ray machine, no security protocol for passengers – nothing. So much for post 9/11 security!
I have no way of knowing whether the disappearance of Malaysia Air 370 was a result of terrorism, a hijacking, a structural failure, or a conspiracy, but its disappearance got me thinking about some of my travel experiences in Asia over nearly 30 years. I recall living in Singapore in 2001, when 9/11 happened, and the tremendous response the Singapore government made to identify and root out several active cells of Jemaah Islamiyah in the city. The threat was very real, and the tension was palpable. The headlines were dramatic, but not all the important stories made the news.
For example, a friend of mine, who worked for operations at Changi Airport (one of the world’s very best), sent me photos after 9/11 of sabotage to several planes that had apparently been caused by ground staff at the Airport. Wires had been cut in the cockpit and on the brakes of at least one 747, prompting the Airport to closely scrutinize its ground staff. During that time the Singapore government did an excellent job addressing the issue of security. The fact that no attacks occurred in Singapore – even though active terrorist cells were present – is all an observer needed to know, and gave air travelers confidence. Of course, Singapore is well known for its intelligence apparatus and was particularly well equipped to tackle the problem.
The Malaysian Government and Kuala Lumpur International Airport are now being closely scrutinized on a plethora of issues – airport security being among them. I can say with complete confidence that whatever issues may exist, KLIA and Malaysia Airlines will soon be one of the safest airports and airlines to fly as a result of this tragic event. You can be sure that the government will be diligent in ensuring that the flying public is confident in its state-owned airline in the future. But Malaysia is not really the problem here — the problem is the lack of consistency among and between countries when it comes to airport safety and security procedures.
Take the example of Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport. Every time I flew to Singapore from NAIA – which is an FAA approved airport – I had to go through a security check of my bags before I could enter Changi Airport. In other words, the government of Singapore did not believe that the government of the Philippines was doing an adequate job of screening bags, which is ironic because unlike in Singapore, the security protocol in the Philippines is that bags are routinely checked every time someone enters an office building, shopping mall or movie theater. So should I have felt safer in Manila or in Singapore? (Short answer, in Singapore. The Philippines has its security protocol for good reason, and Singapore does not, for good reason).
The lack of consistency in perceived and actual adherence to global security standards extends beyond airport security. Why is it that neither Thailand (where two tickets for MH370 were purchased using false passports), Malaysia (where the tickets were used), nor China (where the passengers were heading) referenced the Interpol database of stolen passports to screen the two Iranians who used the stolen passports? Should Thailand get a pass on this because of the free-for-all approach to getting things done that pervades so many aspects of life there? Should an airline passenger think of Thailand any differently than Malaysia or China when it comes to airline security?
The tragedy of MH370 has raised a wide array of issues that must be addressed, swiftly. For example, how is that, 12 years after 9/11, and all the trillions of dollars that have been spent on ramping up global security, stolen passports can still be used to purchase airline tickets? Why is it that flight data is not transmitted from an airplane to an airline’s headquarters, but instead continues to be stored in an airplane’s black box? Why is it that a transponder can be switched off at will, and not overridden remotely? How is it that with radar and satellites, an airplane can simply “disappear”?
Given the incredible speed with which the aviation industry has grown and continues to grow - especially in Asia – these seem like basic questions that should have been addressed long ago. The differences in approach to airport and airline security that exist throughout Asia certainly doesn’t help matters much. As has unfortunately been the case in the past, it is now taking such a tragedy to focus minds, governments, and budgets, on the problem. If this incredible story results in positive change, at least the victims of MH370 will not have died in vain.