Crisis? What Crisis? The Truth about New Zealands's Airport Security

AIRPORT SECURITY around the world changed forever after terrorists crashed planes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, killing more than 3000 people.

Literally overnight in New Zealand, security screening was introduced on domestic flights.

But three years on from the September 11 attacks, a Sunday Star-Times investigation has discovered that thousands of passengers who fly around New Zealand every week on regional routes face no security at all.

Government policy has set the threshold for domestic security screening at aircraft with 90 seats or more. That in itself is outdated - Air New Zealand no longer operates the whisper jets the 90-seat policy was introduced for.

The Aviation Security Service will spend more than $13 million in the next year on security screening on domestic flights between the main centres, but nothing on regional security. That means no metal detectors, no luggage X-rays and no bag searches for people travelling routes such as Auckland to Palmerston North or Wellington to Napier. Terrorism experts say New Zealand's lack of regional airport security makes the country a weak link in the fight against terrorism.

They say the government should close the loopholes. The government says the cost is prohibitive and the public would have to bear increased ticket prices.

Flying around New Zealand last week, it was as if September 11 never happened. The sight of a box cutter - the weapon so terrifyingly wielded by the September 11 terrorists - did not alarm cabin crew on regional flights.

"Don't worry, we won't tell anyone," laughed one air hostess, allowing a reporter travelling on a 66-seater ATR 72-500 to carry the cutter on board.

Another reporter on a South Island flight was told, on presenting the box cutter: "Oh well, you've got away with it. We'll let you keep it." Just one attendant removed the cutter from the aircraft, saying "we can't take those on-board".

Carrying sharp items on board all aircraft is prohibited.

Airline spokesman Glen Sowry said if cabin crew determined a threat to exist, there were procedures to follow.

Passengers can now board an aircraft at Auckland without speaking to an airline representative, by using the computerised check-in system.

A terrorist could walk on to the tarmac with a concealed weapon simply by presenting a boarding pass for a regional flight -- and they would be metres from jumbo jets.

The planes flying regional routes - the ATR 72-500 and the 33-seater Saab 340 - do not carry enough fuel to make it to Australia but could be diverted to any main centre in New Zealand.

The risk to regional flights was illustrated in Australia last year, when a crazed passenger armed with two 20cm wooden stakes tried to storm into the cockpit and seize control of a plane on its way from Melbourne to Tasmania.

Australia has since launched a $52m package to increase security at regional airports. There will be new security capabilities at 146 regional airports around Australia, closed-circuit television is to be introduced and a public awareness campaign launched.

Geoff Askew, the head of security for Qantas in Australia, said the threat assessment for aviation in the two countries was different. But if a common air border between the two countries occurred, "then security arrangements would need to be harmonised".

The government considers the possibility of a terrorist strike on New Zealand is low, and Aviation Security detected only three incidents during the past year where a passenger's actions represented a threat to the aircraft.

The Civil Aviation Authority says it monitors the threat to New Zealand aviation and regular threat assessments are sought.

Mark Everitt, general manager of the Aviation Security Service, says his organisation is ready to send staff to regional airports if the threat level increases.

"You have to take into account things like our geographical isolation. It would be great if we had bottomless pits of money and we could put security into everything but we don't.

"At the end of the day it (security costs) goes on to the passenger's ticket."

The cost of security on each domestic air ticket is $2.80.

Peter Cozens, the director of Victoria University's Centre for Strategic Studies, says New Zealand needs to be seen as serious about security if it wants to continue to attract tourists.

"Maybe some people would say security in the regional airports is not worthwhile, but you can't be too secure.

"Visitors to New Zealand are the lifeblood industry. If they don't feel secure, they won't come and see us."

Victoria University aviation expert Leslie Brown says potential risks should be balanced with reasonable security costs.

"New Zealand is part of a world that is a risky place, but you've got to assess all the risks and do the best job possible. Somebody has to pay."

Massey University's terrorism specialist Jeff Sluka believes all airport security is "purely cosmetic".

"Maybe it increases your security by 1%. From the perspective of guerrilla warfare and terrorism, no security is going to stop them. Say al Qaeda wants to do something to an airplane flying from Palmerston North to Wellington, virtually nothing you could do would stop that.

"But what we can do is be seen to be serious about this and it's important to reassure the public."