Are you paying too much for Airport Security measures?

According to a recent study, yes. But, before you take a gigantic ax to your next years annual security budget, consider what the study assessed, and more importantly, what it didn’t.

The study was published in the Journal of Air Transport Management looked at the “Cost-benefit analysis of airport security: Are airports too safe?”

Considering the recent murder of a TSA officer at the Los Angeles International Airport, and the measures that go above and beyond the TSA regulatory standards that are in place at LAX, the timing of this study is most interesting. It’s also critical to understand the nature of the study and why airport operators should continue to take the threats against their facilities seriously. I can just see some County Administrator or city councilman waving this study in the air as justification for slashing the police budget at their local airport. They shouldn’t – this report, while good research, did not take into account numerous factors.

The study takes a data-driven approach and is largely based on some previous attacks at airports in the United States and throughout the world. The paper assesses the risks and cost-effectiveness of measures designed to further protect airport terminals and associated facilities such as parking garages from terrorist attacks. The study looked at four threat scenarios: 

  1. Large truck bomb
  2. Curbside car bomb
  3. Luggage or vest bomb
  4. Public grounds shooting attack (active shooter)

However, the paper did not take into account numerous “near-miss,” attacks on airports such as:

  1. The attempted bombing of the LAX terminal in 1999 by Ahmed Ressem, aka “the millennium bomber.”
  2. Bombings in the parking lots of the airport in Madrid in 2006 (the report addresses the rail bombings in Madrid in 2004, but not the airport bombings in 2006).
  3. A suicide bomber at the Islamabad airport in 2007

Nor did the research paper take into account times when an individual targeted an airport but was deterred by security measures already in place, such as the case of Hosam Maher Husein Smadi, who was arrested by the FBI for attempting to detonate a truck bomb at the Fountain Plaza in Dallas. Smadi later said that he originally targeted Dallas/Love Field or DFW, but found security too tight. This is not necessarily the fault of the researchers but it’s something to keep in mind next time you’re arguing for more funds to protect the airport. One wonders that had the researchers included these publicized events if the conclusions would have been different.

The research was limited to a few sources, which, ironically, did not include my text Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future ThreatsI say ironically, because the paper was published in the Journal of Air Transportation, which is published by Elsevier, which is the same publisher of my textbook. The authors did cite Bart Elias’ excellent text “Airport and Aviation Security,” but it was published in 2010, not 2013 (Practical Aviation Security’s 2nd edition pub date).

Also, I did not see citations from Aviation Security International magazine, which features a history of recent attacks on aviation in every issue. There are attacks on airports and aircraft that happen several times a year that the vast majority of American’s never hear about because they aren’t publicized. I don’t highlight these research shortcomings to criticize the document, but to provide consideration and perspective for airport managers who are trying to justify the costs of security measures in their airports.

As a result of the shooting at LAX (their second in 11 years by the way) airports all over the country are interested in lessons learned and how they can prevent their airport from becoming the next scene of an active shooter. Even TSA’s union is pushing for the arming of their agents. It was of particular interest to me as I have always sought to answer the question: why are aircraft attacked in far greater numbers than airports?

Another consideration is that many airport sponsors (cities, counties, authorities) may wonder why we should spend money on airport security when the community has greater concerns? Let’s suspend the fact that most commercial service airports are self-sustaining and don’t rely on local tax revenues, and that the FAA does not allow airports to use their revenues to support non-airport related functions, and just look at this on its face value.


Consider that on the same year one TSA officer was killed at LAX, 255 other people were murdered in the city of Los Angeles, but you don’t see the same public outrage and call for action. 9/11 killed nearly 3,000 people, but over 40,000 were killed the same year in car accidents. Here’s the rationale: Aviation has always been a target for terrorism and will continue to be a target for terrorism. Attacks on aviation are considered attacks on the homeland (thank you Gore Commission for that conclusion), and attacks on aviation affect a fragile transportation system that the United States in particular, relies on heavily for commerce.

Airport police understand that if there is a suspicious vehicle, you can’t just shut down the entire airport for six hours while you try to figure it out. However, park that same suspicious vehicle down the street a few blocks and the local police will evacuate and shut down a 10-block radius, then take all the time they feel necessary to figure it out. Airport security has always been a balance of protecting the public, while keeping them moving.

That’s why we spend billions on protecting aircraft but what about airports? The research report concluded that airports are not attacked very often, and that when they are, the casualties are low and the ability of the airport to get back to normal business is rather quick. Personally, I posited in my textbook that the reason that aircraft are attacked more than airports is the psychological impact to downing an aircraft. An airplane is an enclosed environment where people already feel that much of what goes on is beyond their control – the possibility that it could be bombed adds to the fear factor. In an airport, people believe they can seek cover or try to run away. Plus, when an airplane is bombed or hijacked its news all over the world. 

In both my conclusion in Practical Aviation Security and in the author’s conclusion of their research paper, there was speculation that as it becomes more difficult to bomb or hijack an airliner, terrorists may turn to airports as their next target. Also, the lone-wolf terrorist or criminal cannot be discounted – who is to say an individual sees a federally operated control tower at your local general aviation airport as a target for domestic terrorism, or the possibility of someone executing a hate crime or act of workplace violence in an airport environment? These are all factors that are difficult to predict when we can only look at what has happened in the past.

The research study assessed 10 measures to enhance security, specifically using the Rand Study published in 2004 for the Los Angeles International Airport (yep, read that one extensively myself – it’s the basis for a lot of the public protection procedures in place at U.S. airports). The study noted significantly that some of the measures would have a severe negative impact on the ability of the airport to move people in a financially feasible manner. Note: my commentary are in italics. 

  1. Add permanent vehicle search checkpoints with bomb detection capability. LAX is one of the few airports that does this constantly – other airports do it as part of their increased security measures. It is a significant deterrent to vehicle bombing of the terminal building.
  2. Add skycaps, check-in personnel, and more TSA lines (screening lanes). Big lines present attractive targets and high densities of people means more casualties. 
  3. Enhance training of airport police rapid reaction team to SWAT standards. While many many airports have police officers that are professional, highly trained and highly vigilant, unfortunately in some rare cases the airport becomes a repository for officers that have become a problem for the local police department. The active shooter is THE threat of our present time and all police officers should be trained to respond quickly and effectively.
  4. Direct all vehicles to remote lots. This works but will cause too much passenger disruptions to be implemented at any airport.
  5. Add curbside blast deflection and shatterproof glass. Good enough for Israel, good enough for us. 
  6. Eliminate the lane closest to the terminal. This increases stand-off distances for vehicle-born improvised explosive devices, but isn’t cost effective for airports to sustain over the long term. Too much disruption of passenger flow.
  7. Add additional support columns for upper level roadways. Reduce damage from VBIED.
  8. Search all luggage entering terminals. Good luck – you’ll have lines out the street and onto your nearest Interstate. While Israel does this, it’s not sustainable or affordable for the U.S. aviation system.
  9. Add 30 handheld bomb sniffing devices. Effective and affordable for quick resolution of suspicious vehicles and baggage.
  10. Add 30 bomb dogs and handlers. Dogs, yes give me more dogs. They are a great deterrent and highly effective at detecting explosives.

One other element that the study did not address is the cost of inconveniencing the passengers – what passengers call “the hassle factor.” Several of the above procedures would increase the hassle factor and push some passengers to other modes of transportation or communication (video conferencing), or to push political representatives to make changes, thus eliminating or watering down some of the measures.

The study did address the difficulty of designing and manufacturing an improvised explosive device here in the United States as compared to foreign countries, but Timothy McVeigh, the Weather Underground, dozens of small time terrorist groups, two high-school kids from Littleton, Colorado and a couple of guys that were at the Boston Marathon last year shows that it isn’t that hard. The Anarchist Cookbook is still available through online bookstores and explains how to make explosive devices using household items or easily acquired chemicals.

The study does show the limited numbers of deaths that could occur as the result of any of the aforementioned attacks, and it does address the costs of such attacks, both in terms of actual damage and the losses to the airline industry as a result. Here are their quotes from page 23 of the report:

  • A 2005 RAND study hypothesised that the downing of an airliner by a shoulder fired missile would lead to a total economic loss of more than $15 billion (23).
  • The 9/11, attacks directly resulted in the deaths of nearly 3000 people with an associated loss of approximately $20 billion, plus $30 billion in physical damage, and the impact on the U.S. economy of the 9/11 attacks range from $50-150 billion in 2011 dollars (23).
  • An attack at a major airport might result in a more wary travelling public and no global growth in revenue/passengers for one year, equivalent to a 5% revenue or passenger decrease for one year. This would entail a loss of at least $30 billion (23), not to mention the physical damages to the facility itself.

The authors argue that a bombing at an airport would be less destructive than that of a hotel or similarly sized structure, such as an office building:

“…airports sprawl and are only two or three stories high, and therefore damage to a portion is not likely to be nearly as significant as damage to a taller or more compact structure. Moreover, if a bomb does go off at an airport, the consequences would probably be comparatively easier to deal with: passengers could readily be routed around the damaged area, for example, and the impact on the essential function of the airport would be comparatively modest.”

Having worked at a few airports, and being involved with numerous threat assessments, I can say that the above statement completely depends on where and what gets hit. There are some areas of airports that are more vulnerable than others. There are some areas that would shut off landside access to the airport completely, even though the blast only affects one area; there are some areas that if hit with a sufficiently sized device would destroy large areas of the terminal building due to other factors involved (underground utilities, gas lines, facility design and other issues I won’t go into for security purposes). Plus, the investigation into such an attack is likely to shut down large areas of the airport for possibly weeks after the actual incident, thus further impacting the national airspace system and possibly jeopardizing the local airport and communities financial ability to sustain operations.

What I appreciated about the report is the depth of knowledge that went into the statistical analysis and the recommendations it made on cost-effective security measures. If stats was your worst subject, you may want to have someone interpret all of this for you. The reports conclusions are that we are paying too much for securing the airport itself as it historically has not been a huge target for terrorism, and when it is, the damage isn’t that bad. The report also highlighted the most effective security measures which also, interestingly, improve the passenger experience.

Adding more skycaps and check-in personnel, and adding more TSA screeners to staff more lines to keep the wait times down, are also great ways to improve airport customer service.

But, what this report should do for aviation security practitioners is be another resource to consider, along with other vulnerability assessments, including ones you do at your airport, rather than the final word on whether your airport is paying too much for security.

Cost-benefit analysis of airport security: Are airports too safe?, Mark Stewart, John Mueller, Journal of Air Transport Management 35 (2014) 19-28, Elsevier.

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