Navigating a flightpath for airport security to counter growing terrorist threat
Tim Compston, Features Editor at Security News Desk, finds out that demand for enhanced security measures at airports is taking off following a spate of incidents.
With protestors able to make their way on to the runaway at London City Airport recently the security of airports was once again in the headlines. On the back of a string of incidents – including serious terrorist attacks, from Brussels to Istanbul, we investigate the challenges of hardening security both landside and airside as well as at the perimeter itself. Of course it is not just physical security measures that are critical here, ensuring that staff are adequately vetted is also very much on the radar.
Aside from hostile vehicle mitigation measures around airport terminal buildings, in many ways groundside security at airports is the poor relation to airside where tremendous efforts have been made to keep threats well away from the aircraft themselves. Post Brussels, airports are likely to be urgently reviewing the situation, the practicalities of instituting more checks, and whether they should be rebalancing their efforts between airside and landside. Being from Northern Ireland, I remember at the height of the Irish Republican terrorist campaign, back in the 1980s, security screening happening, as a matter of course, at terminal entrances well before passengers reached check-in. Perhaps this is the shape of things to come for the wider airport world.
Of course while such an approach wasn’t commonly applied in Western European countries like Belgium prior to Brussels, some airports situated elsewhere – especially those with a history of attacks – already do screen passengers and their baggage often well before they enter the terminal proper. Even with such steps in place, some counter that having checks at the edge may logistically, and financially, cripple modern airport operations or simply move the problem to another location.
Speaking to Cameron Mann, head of Global Markets for Aviation at Smiths Detection, for his take on the state of airport security, he feels that for the future, a more layered approach may become the order of the day: “The airport regulations presently in place cover today’s passengers entering airside space. The emerging risk is landside, where the public at large remain unscreened. Additional layers of security and screening could be adopted to provide effective measures to increase the safety and security of the travelling public, and protect the broader infrastructure and people that operate within this area. Asked about whether there are smaller units that can be moved to the edge, temporarily, if there is a heightened threat level. Mann (pictured above) replies that a mobile screening capability can easily be deployed and some airports are already making use of mobile X-Ray units and a variety of other measures: “The layered approach to security allows the routes to the airport to become part of the solution, for example, technologies are available to screen vehicles and people as they are approaching the airport,” he says. According to Mann, depending on the threat level, this screening at the boundary can act as a visible deterrent as well as detecting threats to the airport before they reach the terminals.
When we speak, Greg Alcorn, Divisional Director – Transport & Infrastructure at Synectics, is keen to flag up what, in his view, sets airports and other transport hubs apart: “The whole purpose is, of course, to take people in and take them to another place. That in itself means you are talking about vastly different numbers. For a commercial office building it might be a couple of thousand people, whereas the average airport is handling between 50 to 60 million people per year.”
James Somerville-Smith, EMEA Channel Marketing Leader at Honeywell Security & Fire, agrees that the primary challenge for security professionals with regards to today’s rapidly expanding airports is the level of congestion: “Airports are some of the world’s busiest spaces, which can be difficult to monitor effectively. To tackle this, airports adopt strategies that enable security managers to prevent scenarios from turning into incidents. If a passenger leaves their bag in a terminal, for example, technologies such as video analytics spot the behaviour and alert security staff immediately. Staff can then assess the situation and intervene, pre-empting any problems.”
Another hurdle for those securing airports, reckons Somerville-Smith, is that most never stop their operations: “Their security systems must perform day or night throughout the year. Continuing to operate without interruption is essential to providing a good service to airlines and passengers, even in the event of an unexpected power failure. The answer is installing integrated security systems, with automatic fail-over to back-up systems.”
From an access control perspective Philip Verner, Regional Sales Director, EMEA at CEM Systems/Tyco Security Products also seeks to address the distinctive nature of airports: “The challenges here include the fact that an airport is much more regulated, for instance if the airside/landside boundary is not secure in some countries the airport needs to close. Also there a great deal of construction going on in airports so, again, the question is how can access control deal with that? Someone coined the phrase that an airport is effectively just a big construction site with airplanes taking of and that is very, very, true.”
Another issue to throw into the access control mix here, explains Verner, is the sheer scale of an airport’s population and number of card holders: “There can be tens of thousands of people working at the airport and only a fraction of those will actually be airport staff, the rest are contractors, airline crew, and then obviously you have the passengers. Dealing with all of that presents its unique challenges. You can have different airline staff coming in for a short period of time and then they may be away again for months. We have built into our system many different ways from the software all the way down to the door level to handle that.”
Added to this, Verner points out that a simple thing like opening a door – which is standard practice for an access control system – may in an airport scenario need to be tied, automatically, to other elements. To illustrate his point, Verner explains the value of having a passenger mode built-in whereby an approved contractor or airline staff member can open a door and put a gate room into sequence: “This means that when the gate room is opened for an international flight or a domestic flight – or an arriving flight or a departing flight – interlocking groups of doors prevent other people getting into that area. You are effectively segregating the people so you don’t mix passengers. All of that needs to happen in the control equipment that we [CEM Systems] would deploy at an airport.”
With attention focused on the landside/airside interface it is all easy, of course, to overlook other parts of airport security equation. Offering his thoughts on protecting the perimeter of these large-scale sites, Ashley Wyton, International Sales Manager at 360 Vision Technology Ltd, says that, more often than not, airport fence lines of are situated well away from cities and this isolation makes them more vulnerable to a prolonged attack: “I am talking globally, obviously for places like Heathrow it is fairly built-up around them. In more remote locations rather than a quick jump over the fence [the attackers] have more time to play with.”
On the subject of how to pick-up on intruders in situations where there simply isn’t a fence line or the ability to bury a cable – such as runways adjacent to water – Wyton believes that a camera and radar combination like 360 Vision’s Technology’s Predator Radar has much to commend it: “When it comes to modern forms of detection, airports are already very familiar with radar from their day-to-day operations so they are, normally, quite warm to the idea for security.” Basically you need something that is a barrier without being physical. The radar allows you to draw a fence line that might not necessarily be there so anybody crossing that line is instantly going to be detected and the associated camera will then lock on to the target and track and trace them wherever they may go,” explains Wyton.
Turning to the hot topic of the vetting of those employed at airports. This is an aspect of security that has been raised by many commentators as a potential weak link, especially as any lapses may allow terrorist cells to infiltrate this critical national infrastructure with devastating effect.
Looking more closely at the human dimension associated with the Brussel’s tragedy, Flemish-language television station VTM revealed, recently, that one of the suicide bombers – Najim Laachraoui – had actually worked at the airport for five years until 2012.
Of course those who say that this should have raised a red flag are working with the benefit of hindsight. It was, in fact, only two years on in February 2014 that Laachraoui is thought to have actually travelled to Syria, long after his stint at the airport, so whether the warning signs were there for his employer – or the authorities – to take action prior to this is still open to question.
Added to a direct, albeit historical, connection with one of those involved in the Brussels airport attack, an open letter from airport police officers issued the week after the attack also raises serious questions about how deep seated such vulnerabilities are.
One of the key points flagged-up by the letter was that, according to the police officers, ‘at least 50 ISIS sympathisers are working in the airport’ with security passes in roles from shop assistants to cleaners and baggage handlers.
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