Why We Have Bomb Detection for Airline Baggage

Today, December 21, 2017, is the 29th anniversary of the second most deadly terrorist attack against the US (after 9/11) and the worst air disaster and terrorist attack against the UK in history. The Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland killed 270 (189 Americans) on a flight from Frankfurt to London to New York to Detroit.

There had been warnings of such an attack before Christmas on an American flight from Frankfurt to the US in the weeks before, but under FAA rules, threats were not made public. However, notices of the warning were posted at US Embassy bulletin boards and known to those with US or airline security connections.

After this attack, bomb detectors were installed for checked baggage and the law was changed to provide that credible threats should be made known to threatened passengers and flight crews. But these reforms did not occur without strong citizen action.

They were spearheaded by the victim families who organized an over 1,000 strong group that on the 103rd day after the bombing descended on Washington DC. Paul Hudson chaired and co-organized the group. They met with President George HW Bush in the Oval Office for over an hour and then visited all 100 Senate offices demanding to know their position on an independent investigation. A lobbying and petition drive followed that, and in two months they persuaded a majority of the Senate and the President, notwithstanding the opposition of the Secretaries of Transportation, State, Defense and the CIA.

This campaign resulted in a President’s Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism (1989), enactment of the Aviation Security Improvement Act of 1990, strong UN sanctions against Libya (1993-2004) after evidence showed it to be responsible. Civil lawsuits against Pan Am and avoidance by passengers caused it to declare bankruptcy, and sanctions coupled with civil lawsuits and changes in the foreign sovereign immunity law against Libya resulted in nearly $3 billion being paid by Libya in compensation to the victims of its state sponsored terrorism. Two Libyans were also indicted and one convicted. Other suspects remain at large in Libya and elsewhere.

Separately a Pan Am pilot Bruce Smith who lost his wife on Pan Am 103 single-handedly persuaded the airlines and the US Government to establish a $10 million Aviation Terrorism Reward Program that has thwarted several other aviation terrorism plots and led to breakthroughs in criminal investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

Today, the US remains under terrorist threat, particularly during the holiday season, though now mainly by non state actors.