Until investigations unfold regarding the disappearance of EgyptAir flight MS804, one question will keep coming up: how secure was the aircraft and can flights’ security be breached?
Aircraft security to minimise technical hazards
An Airbus A320 pilot, who spoke to Daily News Egypt on Sunday on condition of anonymity, went through the pre-flight security checks performed on the aircraft. “Aircraft security is mainly the responsibility of cabin crew members, supervised by the captain,” he stated.
The plane is handed to the crew about to fly by the former team on board, who, according to the pilot, complete a quick check of the cabin that is not technical-focused, like for instance checking for any forgotten belongings.
Following that, the plane is inspected by the new crew using checklists for security check-ins in the cabin, pockets and under seats. Besides crew members, cleaners have access to the aircraft. “All of these people have supposedly been well-screened,” he said. Depending on the airport, this team may be escorted by airport security personnel who verify, with IDs, that everyone on the plane has a role, or in other words, a reason to be on the plane.
An on-ground engineer—affiliated with the airline company, according to a senior former presidential pilot—performs checks on the fuel and cargo areas, sealing their doors after completing the check. Crew members are given the sealing codes. The pilot is in charge of securing the cockpit and testing emergency equipment.
“Every check should be documented and signed by the participants in the process, approved, and signed by the senior cabin crew member. Under no circumstances can passengers be brought on board before the captain completes his task. I have previously witnessed a communication misunderstanding where passengers started boarding before checks were completed. They were stopped half-way through and asked to wait,” the pilot stated.
Moreover, crew members observe passengers while they board the aeroplane. They are entitled to refuse any of them without being questioned, on grounds of suspicion.
Major Abou Bakr Mohsen, a former presidential pilot, added that the pilot checks the plane’s external body through the on-ground engineer, who checks for any apparent signs of malfunction on the plane. Both the pilot and co-pilot perform internal checks. They start the engine, check navigation devices, and insert the aircraft’s navigation route.
“The pilot also performs some checks before take-off when driving the plane, to test the communication systems as well. The cockpit is a restricted zone to passengers and its door is designed against forced entries,” Mohsen further said.
Airport security cannot be 100 percent
“You can have the best security in the world and still get something onto a plane,” explained Jeff Price, a professor at MSU Denver and lead author of Practical Aviation Security, speaking to Daily News Egypt on Saturday.
According to the expert, the insider threat onboard is very important. This is partly because, despite security measures meant to ensure no passengers or outsiders can get a bomb or weapon onto a plane, is it impossible to fully monitor airport workers who must access the aeroplane, baggage, and the cabin as part of their job.
“There’s just not enough money to hire millions of people to watch over every single person working on every operation, on every flight, every day,” Price said.
Moreover, according to the Airbus pilot, crew members do not get searched except in very rare cases, which could involve smuggling.
The Russian Metrojet A321 plane crash in October 2015 led to a re-evaluation of Egypt’s airport security systems amid international demands, due to the claim made by Islamic State (IS), which claimed responsibility for downing the aeroplane.
A few hours after EgyptAir flight MS804 was reported missing and before Egyptian authorities confirmed its destruction, French president François Hollande said he would not rule out terrorism-related activities.
French authorities previously let go of dozens of airport personnel following the terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and the Paris attacks in November 2015.
Although no radical group has claimed it downed the plane, former chairperson of Egyptian Airports Company Gad El-Kereem Nasr asserted to Daily News Egypt that responsibility for the aircraft also falls on Paris’ Charles De Gaulle airport.
“The airport from which the aircraft takes off is responsible for securing it and screening personnel working on the aircraft,” he asserted on Monday.
Pilots and co-pilots’ screening and training
Mohsen recalled when he had been temporarily suspended from flying, for an “unstable condition” noted during the pilots’ medical check-ups. “I suffered digestion problems and was prescribed a treatment medicine which is supposed to make my stomach muscles relax. I had obtained prior-authorisation from my supervisors of course,” he told Daily News Egypt in a Sunday call.
Mohsen explained that at first he did not understand why he had failed medical examinations until it was revealed at last that the medicine was enough cause for him to be declared unfit to fly.
He went on to review the exams for pilots and co-pilots, which include simulators for real-life disaster trainings, physical and mental health, in addition the minimum recorded flight hours required.
“If a medical examination reveals lower results for a pilot’s sight than in previous records, he must obtain new authorisation to fly with glasses. He would also be inspected as to whether he is using them or not,” Mohsen said.
Moshen made various statements by which he aimed to minimise the possibility of human error on behalf of the MS804 pilots, as well as technicalities, but maintained that there could be no conclusions drawn without the aeroplane’s voice and data recorders, which are yet to be found.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Abbas