Airport Perimeter Security – is it enough?

Several recent airport perimeter security breaches have brought the issue into the public spotlight. Normally, such scrutiny is reserved for the “front door,” of aviation security, which is the screening checkpoint and largely the domain of the TSA.

The “back door,” employee access and perimeter security, is regulated by TSA but the actual protection and management of the systems are the responsibility of the airport operator.

The recent incident of an individual on a jet-ski, who was stranded and jumped the perimeter fence at the JFK airport – who has stated he tried to get noticed in order to receive medical attention. He eventually had to (according to public reports) contact a cargo worker and notify him of his presence. The question asked by the media and the general public is: what if this was a bad operator with intent to do harm?

Before we start installing triple fencing with razor wire, guard towers with spotlights and .50 caliber machine gun nests, let’s assess the risk of a perimeter intrusion.

The incident at Dallas / Love Field, where a drunk driver crashed through a perimeter gate and led police on a high speed chase across the airfield, highlights a safety threat. The FAA has traditionally been concerned with the risk of vehicles colliding with an aircraft, particularly during the takeoff or landing phase of flight. Therefore, a potential threat is a bad operator intentionally attempting to crash their vehicle into an aircraft on takeoff or landing.

A related threat would be the use of a car bomb on an aircraft parked at the gate or while operating on the taxiway.

Another threat is the risk of an individual accessing the airfield via the perimeter and introducing a bomb onto the aircraft. An individual could access the aircraft and plant weapons on board for use by a confederate(s) who has lawfully accessed the aircraft by purchasing a ticket and completing the screening checkpoint. Or, individuals could access the field via the perimeter and attempt to hijack the aircraft – however, it’s unlikely to ever get off the ground so I’m not going to pay too much attention to that risk right now.

Actually, several of these threats have already occurred in aviation’s history. There have been incidents where individuals lobbed mortar shells over the perimeter fence, snipers have fired bullets at passengers from off-airport locations, hijackers have accessed aircraft via perimeter gates (dressed as security or customs personnel) and catering personnel have stowed weapons on aircraft for later use by a confederate.

The existing layers of security for the perimeter include fencing with barbed wire, airport and airline personnel watching for individuals in the security areas without the proper identification and airfield patrols by police, airport operations and security personnel. The levels of security (i.e. patrols) vary by airport staffs and capabilities.

Presently, airfield access gates are not required to have pop up barricades but are required to be strong enough to stop or slow down most vehicles attempting to drive through them. Perimeter Intrusion Detection Systems (PIDS) are not required in the United States, although many airports, including JFK have implemented them.

There are some airports that meet very stringent security standards, such as the Ben Gurion Airport, which features at least 3 fences, including a monitored perimeter intrusion detection system (PIDS), closed circuit television monitoring and a separate security control tower. Some U.S. airports, such as LAX and Boston/Logan have installed pop up barricades at their perimeter gates as an added layer, while others, like JFK, have installed various forms of PIDS.

The TSA recently announced it was reviewing the perimeter security requirements, so efforts are already underway, and they should be. History has shown us over the past 11 years, that as it gets harder to get a prohibited item through a screening checkpoint, bad operators are looking for other pathways to attack aviation. Recently, we have seen suicide bombings at airports (Moscow, Pakistan) and air cargo bombs (Yemen).

So, what should we do?

There are a few steps airports can do right now. Increasing the use of armed law enforcement, unarmed security officers and airport operations personnel to patrol the airfield and additional training for all airport personnel in watching for individuals not wearing the proper identification in the security areas. TSA can increase the use of red teaming to identify specific vulnerabilities at airports, to fix the problems, not punish the airport with fines. Airports can adopt Security Management Systems (SeMS), which is a systematic program, closely related to Safety Management Systems, that puts security as a priority, identifies and mitigates known risks, audits the systems in place and promotes security throughout the airport culture.

Longer term solutions: I believe that the pop up bollards or other similar methods should be in place at U.S. airports. It helps solve both a security and a safety issue. I believe that perimeter security should be increased, both in terms of technology and “boots on the ground.” Technology, such as PIDS (when it works) helps identify an intrusion. Individuals patrolling the airfield can also identify intruders, help deter intrusions and put personnel in a better position to spot bad operators who may attempt to shoot down or laze an aircraft using surface-to-air-missiles, rocket launchers or laser devices. These basic security improvements will strengthen the back door to airport security.

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