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Why our airports still scare me

July 13, 2004 – National Post 

By Senator Colin Kenny

Canada’s airports are still not offering Canadian travellers the security they deserve. The situation is not as bad as it was when the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence published The Myth of Security at Canada’s Airports in January, 2003. But “not as bad” doesn’t measure up to good.

Prime Minister Paul Martin made an intelligent move when he appointed Anne McLellan Deputy Prime Minister in December, 2003, and gave her responsibility for public safety and emergency preparedness. The federal government needed to attach that kind of muscle to security matters given the new kinds of asymmetrical threats that are facing Canadians and our important international allies.

However, this very astute move -which came close to matching recommendations the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence had made in another report a few months earlier - fell short in a couple of ways. Among the most important deficiencies is that the federal government’s agency responsible for improving security at Canadian airports - the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) - continues to report to Transport Canada, rather than Ms. McLellan.

Transport Canada is not well known for the depth of its security expertise.  Our committee shares the frustration of people at CATSA who are reportedly forced to spend much of their time trying to explain what constitutes good security to bureaucrats unfamiliar with this very complex territory.

There is no doubt that major security problems persist at Canada’s airports.  One major component of good security is intelligence. As mentioned, that isn’t Transport Canada’s game. Another major component is effective policing. The Senate committee has repeatedly argued that the RCMP should be restored as the police agency responsible for security at all Canadian airports. Policing is primarily in the hands of local police forces at the moment, which undermines a coordinated national approach to airport security.

So does the current system of allowing local airport authorities to run airports like personal fiefdoms. There are now 89 designated airport authorities responsible only to themselves, with unlimited taxing and spending powers.

Concerned primarily with maximizing revenues, these authorities play a large and unwarranted role in deciding how security will be handled at each airport. Not satisfied with reducing policing at airports dramatically in recent years, they have actually had the temerity to lobby the federal government to give them the right to set up their own rent-a-cop police forces. Just what Canadians need during this new age of terror in the skies - cut-rate cops.

We have the federal agency responsible for improving security at Canada’s airports in the hands of Transport Canada, a department clumsy with issues of security. We have policing at Canadian airports in the hands of understaffed local police forces with no national mandate. We have overall airport decision-making largely in the hands of local interests with revenues as their main concern. Is it any wonder that security problems persist at our terminals?

The airports are still riddled with organized crime - people devoted to maintaining large enough security gaps to make money, which means gaps that are also of interest to would-be terrorists.

While all passenger luggage is scheduled to be screened at major airports by the end of 2005 - more than four years after 9/11! - mail continues to enter vulnerable aircraft holds unscreened.

Scrutiny of ground employees continues to be random, and terminal employees continue to have access to areas of vulnerability that have nothing to do with their job descriptions. And guess who issues security passes? CATSA?  The RCMP? Nope - the local airport authorities. At least CATSA designs the passes. But even its newest version is flawed.

While the passes include photos and fingerprints, they don’t incorporate measures to permit “geo-fencing,” which would allow the restriction of employees to areas they need to be in at times they need to be there. Once an employee has one of the new, improved passes, they pretty well have the run of the airport, night and day.

Until the federal government puts airport air port and sea port security in the hands of a centralized agencies -  i.e. the Ministry for Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, plus the RCMP - security at our airports is going to be scattershot. This is too big an issue to be left in the hands of a collection of regional interests, understaffed local police forces, unions who don’t like their members being bothered for ID, federal departments who have no expertise in security matters, and organized criminals and their fellow travellers.  

Colin Kenny, a Canadian Senator, was chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence during the last Parliament. He can be reached via email at kennyco@sen.parl.gc.ca