Sloppy job in screening led to cargo ban

The Daily Star

Shariful Islam

12:00 AM, March 21, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 08:05 PM, March 21, 2016

False entries made by an airport screener on the list of checked goods and a casual smoke break taken by another one were the last straw for the UK monitoring team, leading to the temporary ban on Dhaka-London direct air cargo.  The Daily Star learnt this from a report of the UK Department for Transport (DfT) and a reliable source in the British High Commission in Dhaka. 

In the false entry incident, the operator screened eight items with explosive trace detector (ETD) at the cargo complex of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport. But he recorded 25 in the logbook, an official at the civil aviation ministry reconfirmed.  Ironically though, the operator scored 90-plus marks in a screeners' test carried out online by an international firm that provides security service to different countries.

The operator, whose name could not be known, has been suspended and is under investigation.  The other staff, as observed by the UK team, sat in front of his X-ray machine for hours but was taking his eyes off the monitor frequently. Worse still, he left the scanner for a smoke.  However, it could not be known whether any step has been taken against this staff.

The Daily Star has obtained a copy of the DfT report, which was sent to the civil aviation ministry earlier this month.  The other reasons, which led to the ban as well as warning from the British prime minister of more such actions, are lapses in screening with x-ray and ETD machines; leaving London-bound air cargo unprotected and unguarded on the airside; visible lapses in supervision; non-implementation of Corrective Action Plan (CAP), and manpower and equipment crisis.

On February 29, the DfT discussed these reasons at a meeting between European and British aviation security teams, according to a report sent by the Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (Caab) to the civil aviation ministry.  Eight days later, on March 8, the UK government as part of a set of interim measures imposed the air cargo ban that will remain in effect until further notice.  The same day, British Prime Minister David Cameron wrote to his Bangladesh counterpart Sheikh Hasina, asking her to meet all security requirements at the airport by March 31 to avoid more actions like suspension of direct Biman flight to the UK.  

Biman is set to lose around Tk 100 crore annually if the cargo ban continues.  Following the UK decision and warning, Caab chairman M Sanaul Haque and civil aviation secretary Khorshed Alam Chowdhury were removed.  The government also decided to hire a foreign firm as suggested by the UK for overall management of security services at Shahjalal International Airport.  About the false entry, a Caab security officer, however, claimed that in their own investigation they found the ETD 1/2 machine's dates were set incorrectly. So it gave wrong readings, but there was nothing wrong in total counts, he claimed. 

Talking to reporters recently, Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Rashed Khan Menon quoted the UK team as saying that screeners have problems in their mindset.  About the supervisors, the UK team observed that either they are not skilled or they don't supervise properly, added the minister.  An official of British High Commission in Dhaka, seeking anonymity, said the UK imposed the cargo ban as Bangladesh responded to its requirements at the eleventh hour.  “Besides, lack of coordination was evident when police said they are not willing to work under the control of another force while Caab and Biman kept blaming each other for the poor security in the cargo complex area.”

The official also said the UK team has been raising the security alarm since October, but a project for purchasing necessary equipment has been approved only recently.  “It is not unlikely that a ban will be imposed on passenger flight between Dhaka and London,” he said, adding it would damage Bangladesh's image seriously.  On March 8, the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council approved a Tk 89.55 crore project for purchasing security equipment for all three international airports -- located in Dhaka, Sylhet and Chittagong.  The project is for purchasing two sets of explosive detection system, six sets of liquid explosive detection system, eight sets of dual view x-ray scanning machines, 14 sets of dual view x-ray scanning machine for cabin baggage, nine sets of under vehicles scanning machine, 14 sets of ETD, five barrier gates, and four sets of flap barriers.  

The DfT made a list of 37 airports in 15 countries that have security lapses following the destruction of a Russian jet in a mid-air explosion over Egypt's Sinai desert in October. The list includes the Dhaka international airport.  Other European countries have authorised the British government to look into the airport security issues of the 15 countries.  UK experts inspected the Dhaka airport in November and December last year and found serious security lapses and risks.  “Findings were horrible. Overall, the airport failed to meet the required security standards in 75 percent of the observations. In 25 percent of the observations, security standards were being consistently met,” said a report prepared by the UK experts after the follow-up visit in December.  

About cargo, the report mentioned, “In 80 percent of the observations, security measures were not complied.”  Talking to this newspaper recently, Rashed Khan Menon said, “We have fulfilled 70 percent of the requirements and meeting the rest 30 percent is under process.”

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