By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – Airport officials and security experts gathered here on 22-23 November at a conference hosted by Airports Council International (ACI) Europe and Asia-Pacific to share ideas on ways to boost secure and efficient airport operations. The event’s dominant theme was the need to maximise security while minimising passenger discomfit, in part by detecting suspicious behavior before terrorists enter the airport.
Oliver Jankovec, ACI’s director general told participants that aviation “has always been the holy grail of terrorists” since attacks against airports bring “a lot of bang for the buck.”
He pointed to four factors that define the new threat environment for Europe’s airports. These are: the collapse in governance in some Arab states and the rise of the Islamic State; Europe’s migration crisis; alienated and socially marginalised Muslim communities; and rising populism. All factors combine to present an unprecedented security challenge, he said.
Noting, however, that airports specialise in transportation, not counter-terrorism, he said “in the end, airports are only the last line of defence. The real challenge is to stop terrorists before they reach the airport.”
This task entails a more towards risk-based and holistic security approach that will balance security concerns while facilitating ever-increasing passenger growth. The industry handled 1.9 billion global passengers in 2015, and projections are for 4.7 billion per year by 2040.
A key topic of discussion was the need to boost the security of ‘landside’ versus ‘airside’ security. While airside security is now considered as relatively safe from attack, the vulnerabilities now lie more within a diverse range of landside activities – from arrival at terminals in a taxi to online check-in days, or even weeks, before the departure date.
Arnaud Feist, CEO of Brussels Airport, described his organisations efforts to strengthen landside security. “The threat has also evolved to the land side, including train stations, supermarkets, shopping malls, or football stadiums” close by or on the way to the airport, he said.
Since the horrific attacks of 22 March on the Brussels airport that killed 16 and injured 150, many new security features have been installed. Terminal walls now feature shatter-resistant glass – a key element in new or modernising airports – while, in future, he said, remote bag drop facilities and remote check-in will be part of a multi-layered landside security system.
Feist added that, as of 7 November, entrances staffed with “behaviour detection officers” have replaced the post-attack tents outside Zaventum Airport’s main terminal. The plain-clothed police officers are trained to examine arriving travelers for potentially suspicious behaviour or activity. When asked by SECURITY EUROPE what sort of behavior these officers would be trained to spot, he declined to elaborate.
Dr Sani Şener, CEO of Istanbul Ataturk airport, offered a different perspective on security. On 28 June two suicide bombers armed with Kalashnikovs stormed the airport, shooting travelers before blowing themselves up. The incident killed 11 people, and wounded 240.
Only two weeks later, an alleged coup against the central government took place, involving Istanbul Airport once again as a target when the supposed plotters took over the control tower. Away on holiday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used social media to spur people to occupy the airport, causing some 50,000 people to swarm into the main terminal, thus helping Erdoğan regain control of the situation.
For Şener, the challenge was to allow the crowds to pass through the terminals with a minimum of damage. Communication was critical, he said noting that a crisis leader must be able to communicate with anyone at any time. “A leader manages a forest, but you cannot manage the forest if you do not know the trees,” he said.
Turning back to Belgium, Jam Jambon, the country’s deputy prime minister responsible for security, gave a read-out of his government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Having recently returned from a trip to Israel, he underlined the latter’s “true security” culture. “They are thirty years ahead of us in this matter,” he said.
Jambon described three layers to Belgium’s ongoing security efforts. The first involves getting the right information to the right people in time to react to a specific threat. Here, human intelligence plays a key role in recognising dangerous individuals or detecting suspicious behaviour. The second layer is video surveillance, including license plate recognition technology. “We’ve decided to install a shield of cameras all over Belgium”, he said, adding that cameras are already operational at the entrances of most airports.
He also said his ministry will follow the Israeli model regarding behaviour detection officers. “From now on, specially trained police officers will select individuals to check out,” he said, adding that the officers will not wear uniforms, but “will be present in the field, 24/7”. He stressed, however, that there would be no profiling of people based on age or skin-colour.
The third and final layer consists of well-timed intervention. “We must intervene in suspicious situations,” he said, by coordinating different agencies and services while allowing passengers to enjoy their travel without unnecessary hindrances. “We have to be smarter…to work together to detect new threats in time.”
But for most European airports, the Ben-Gurion example may be more mirage than model. First, Ben-Gurion is a small airport by European or global standards, and it bears little resemblance to the massive, transit-oriented mini-cities that European international airports aspire to be, with their acres of hotels, restaurants and shopping complexes. Secondly, it is nearly certain that Israeli security officers heavily ‘profile’ would-be passengers – and far more aggressively than European officers would ever be allowed to do.
Which brings us to the matter of behaviour detection officers. Can all those long, time-consuming and vulnerable security queues be effectively augmented with all-knowing BDOs who, glancing at thousands of arrivals every day, will spot only the potentially suspicious, based on a quivering hand or dilated pupil?
That seems doubtful. Behaviour detection remains, at best, an inexact science, and, at worst, merely profiling by another name.