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Protecting the Airport’s Public Areas

By Jeffrey C. Price “The Airport Writer”

In the wake of the Ft. Lauderdale active shooter attack, three ‘solutions’ are beginning to emerge. Unfortunately, many of these solutions will provide the public a sense of safety, and politicians will appear to be doing “something”, but the measures could cost a lot of money and the only return on the investment is that flying becomes more difficult, and possibly, makes air travel even less safe. Plus, money spent on largely useless measures is money that could be better spent doing actions that actually increase the protection of the public areas.

The three trends starting to emerge are: a push to relocate screening checkpoints to the curb; a push to revise the regulations restricting individuals from checking guns on board the airplane, and, just wait for it, a push to somehow get TSA screeners more involved in the protection of the public areas.

Some politicians are already talking about proposals along these lines (listed above), so perhaps you can ask them some intelligent questions before they go on spending our money on measures that make us feel good but don’t work.

False Solution Number 1: Moving screening checkpoints to the curb (or near it).

The challenge of protecting a public area is that you will always have a public area somewhere. While many international airports and a few US airports have located their checkpoints near the curb, it doesn’t provide a lot of additional security unless you’re willing to take a few more extra steps. Remember that in Istanbul, the airport does have screening nearer to the curb and that still didn’t stop an attack on the public last year.

When you move a screening checkpoint curbside, you simply have moved the location of where people have to stand and wait – thus, you’ve not eliminated the public area, you just relocated it. The airport may experience more vehicle traffic backups as a result, but more importantly instead of exposing passengers to the risk and consequences of an active shooter or team of shooters, they may be closer to the blast radius of a vehicle-born improvised explosive device.

Also, if you relocate the checkpoints to the curb, and then there’s an incident there, do you push the checkpoints out further to the parking garage, or maybe just stop everyone on the highway and public transportation lines coming into the airport and screen them there? Plus, you’ve only just moved the public area farther out and massively slowed down vehicle traffic. Will we have PreCheck lanes on the Interstate? Maybe you should move the checkpoints out even farther – maybe we’ll just have TSA meet you at your house, screen you there and drive you to the airport. At what point does this stop?

There is also a ripple effect as more and more people experience a higher hassle factor and debate whether they should drive or fly to their destination. Every time it gets harder to fly, more people drive. Their tolerances for long drives has grown too, particularly with highway speeds averaging 70-75 mph, plenty of roadside conveniences and dozens of electronic solutions for the kids to keep them entertained – heck, some cars now even have wifi.

In Israel, where they do set up curbside screening, in addition to lobby screening and then more screening to get to the gates, they also incorporate vehicle screening, the use of video and covert surveillance of the public areas and if you get past all that and open fire, you’ll be quickly neutralized by plain-clothes and sometimes uniformed police. Plus, everyone at the airport is trained to spot suspicious activities and how to report it. Remember – whenever you decide to adopt someone else’s procedure, you can’t neutralize the other elements that make it effective.

False Solution Number 2: Eliminating the ability to carry weapons in checked baggage and force everyone to ship their guns via an all-cargo operator (like FedEx, UPS…), instead.

Weapons have been allowed to be carried by citizens on aircraft in checked baggage for decades, and with few problems. Many airports also allow the carriage of weapons in the public areas as extensions of their local concealed and open carry laws. Had this individual just driven to the airport, parked his car and walked into baggage claim with a gun, we wouldn’t even be talking about restricting the carriage of firearms on flights. He could have just shipped the gun to himself via FedEx or UPS, flown to Ft. Lauderdale, grabbed a cab or Uber over to the shipping facility, retrieved the weapon and driven back to the airport.

[NOTE: ironically, you may be better off in the airport than if you’re caught in the same situation in a shopping mall or concert hall as police response to airport active shooter events are much more rapid than other events.]

It’s also interesting to remember that this type of attack is not without precedent. In 1972, members of the Japanese Red Army flew into the Lod International Airport (now known as Ben Gurion International just outside of Tel Aviv), proceeded to baggage claim where they retrieved guns and hand grenades, and opened fire. However, the tactic in their case was necessary as there were few other options to get guns into the country, and the terrorist group had been recruited by a Palestinian terrorist organization as they knew the Israeli’s were more suspicious of Arab looking passengers than Asian looking passengers.

Another valid question that the no-more-flying-with-guns procedure change brings up, is, lets say we restrict passengers from checking firearms. So when can they open them or retrieve them? How far away do they have to be from the airport to pick them up? What about those airports that do allow the carriage of firearms in the public areas of the airport? Will there be a “no-guns” zone around an airport? Many airports have cargo shipping facilities on or immediately off-site, so in theory, someone can ship to one of those locations, and not have to go very far to retrieve their gun and go back to the airport terminal building.

False Solution Number 3: Sending TSA screeners out into the public areas to conduct random searches.

Wow – if you thought there was uncertainty in how long you had to plan to get through the airport security process before, just wait until this process rolls out. There may be some value to the tactic, but the implementation must be handled very carefully.

There is value to the additional surveillance of public areas but unfortunately TSA isn’t always implementing their procedures in collaborative engagement with the airport. It’s important to note at this time, that the security of the public areas, and even the security of the Sterile Areas (after the checkpoints) is the direct regulatory responsibility of the Airport Operator, not the TSA. The TSA’s focus is on the checkpoint, and regulating the airport operator to ensure they are providing the level of protection required by the Airport Security Program (a document drafted by the airport to meet TSA requirements).

TSA has previously deployed Behavior Detection Officers (BDO) to walk the public areas looking for suspicious people. With the long wait times this year, many of them were re-assigned back to the checkpoints to assume the Travel Document Check positions, which, frankly, puts them in a better place to identify suspicious people before they get onto a plane. TSA also uses programs such as VIPR (Visible Intermodal Protection and Response) and Playbook, which are their random anti-terrorism programs. A VIPR or Playbook strike usually involves some TSA screeners, maybe an explosive K-9 team, an Air Marshal or two, going to a location in the airport, public areas, employee areas, or sterile areas beyond the screening checkpoint, to essentially conduct random searches. This is a valid, internationally recognized anti-terrorism technique which may deter an attack – sort of like requesting extra police patrols when you’re on vacation.

Unfortunately, the BDO program wasn’t without it’s detractors, and many of the critics were airport police who had to respond to the suspicious persons reports coming in from the TSA BDO personnel (note: BDOs are unarmed and do not have arrest or the power to detain someone). Remember the 4th Amendment to the US Constitution? The police need a reason to detain you and in many cases the word of the BDO wasn’t always enough for the police to take action. Many airport operators complained that they observed the BDO teams wandering the airport terminal together in a pack, ‘and not doing much,’ and wondered why they weren’t at the checkpoint helping to keep the lines moving.

As to whether the VIPR teams ever deterred a terrorist act, it’s too difficult to tell. It’s just as difficult to answer that question as it is to tell me how often a burglar decided to bypass your house and hit your neighbors house because your porch light was on giving the appearance someone was home, but his was off. It’s just hard to measure how often something didn’t happen due to some security procedure, until you get the bad guy to tell you, which is sort of rare.

TSA does have a role to play in the protection of public areas though and by engaging with industry, leveraging the intellectual firepower of the Aviation Security Advisory Committee and working with other true security experts, there are solutions to this problem.

The Solutions
I’ll qualify this section by saying that I, one person, who just because I wrote a textbook on aviation security and have 30 years experience in this industry, will be the first to say I do not have all the answers. I have a few suggestions, both in terms of tactics and which way to go moving forward, but I believe in first, listening to the person in the field, and second, listening to a variety of opinions and perspectives.

After 9/11, the regulatory focus of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, was on protecting the airplane. Makes sense though – airplanes are what was used in the attacks and historically, the airplane is the target. However, with the exception of increasing credentialing requirements the legislation spoke little to protecting the airport. No biometric requirement for airport ID badge holders, no requirement to implement Perimeter Intrusion Detection Systems, no requirement to increase law enforcement or anything related to the safety of the public areas.

Although there have been several attacks on airports recently, including LAX in 2013, Brussels and Istanbul last year, there’s only been a slow buildup of airports to address the protection of public places. Maybe this is the tipping point… the “9/11” for the airport industry.

Real Solution Number 1: Getting experts involved, rather than jumping to what seems to be the easy thing to do.

Get the Aviation Security Advisory Committee working on this. The ASAC is an industry advisory committee to TSA who recently published an excellent report focused mostly on the insider threat. Get National Safe Skies Alliance working on this. Safe Skies is a nonprofit group and conducts research on aviation security issues and technologies. They currently have a research project on the street relating to Managing Congestion in Public Areas to Mitigate Security Vulnerabilities. Get Rand and other similar corporations with a record of experience in protecting transportation working on this. We need the counterterrorism experts, i.e. the Brian Jenkins of the world, getting together with the aviation, airline, airport, military and other transportation security experts to exchange knowledge and provide solutions.

We need to put security into aviation security. I know it’s the easy solution to just hire a former police chief or military general or federal agent and assume they are going to know enough about security that they will do the job (and many do, to their credit), but each of their previous positions may not have had anything to do with protecting a fast-moving, worldwide aviation transportation system that sees over 800,000,000 passenger boarding aircraft in the US alone, every year. There is an entire industry of security professionals who focus on and are certified in the protection of facility security, including physical, cyber, internal security, public area protection and more. It’s time to engage their expertise, and also time for those who are already in the aviation security industry, to seek training and certification in this career field.

This unfortunately won’t be the last attack in a public place at an airport so let’s get the ball rolling now. Let’s put all this brainpower to use and see what kinds of solutions they come up with.

Real Solution Number 2: Deploying more police and security personnel to the public areas.

I know this sounds similar to sending TSA personnel into the public areas, but it’s not. I’m talking about taking a lesson from the casino industry, the narcotics industry, and the US Secret Service. Overt and covert surveillance of a public area is a valuable security technique, as long as it’s done the right way.

Commercial service airports are already required to have a law enforcement presence and from all indications the Broward County Sheriff’s Office was johnny-on-the-spot when it came to being on scene to confront the shooter. I think the latest response time I’ve heard publicly is within 60 seconds – which is extraordinary compared to how long it would take for the police to respond to a school or mall shooting. That said, most airports wouldn’t have that short of a response time as they often only have enough personnel to meet the minimum TSA regulatory requirements.

A police officer armed with a long gun, wearing body armor, looking alert and ready for action, moving with purpose through a public area, is not only a great deterrent but also is someone that can provide a rapid response to a situation. In addition to frequent patrols by police of airport public areas, covert personnel should also be included. Police or security personnel in plain-clothes, pretending to move through the system, or even acting as “normal” airport personnel, such as a janitor, or maintenance person, can detect what the uniformed police may miss.

Unarmed security personnel can also provide a level of deterrence, and while they likely cannot physically intervene, if they are properly trained they may be able to detect suspicious activity, and take the appropriate action if the shooting starts – like getting to cover, then using their radio or cell phone to report information back to the airport operations center, while police respond. They may also be able to render a certain amount of first aid if necessary, and also be trained to know the locations where people can hide, where the nearest exits are out of the area where the bad things are happening. This concept can extend to other airport tenants who are willing to become part of the airports response teams during times of crisis. They can be given higher levels of suspicious awareness training that make them better at differentiating random weird activity from the truly bad actors.

Since airport police and unarmed security personnel usually both work for the airport, there can be a higher level of “working together” than working with TSA screeners, who, unfortunately, are still fighting a less than wonderful reputation since the organization stood up in 2001. But there is a way to engage TSA and other agencies and make this all more effective:

First, TSA can play a role in using air marshals who aren’t flying that day, and DHS can assign more Federal Protective Service police to airports to assist airports that do not have a large-enough law enforcement presence.

Second, with multiple agencies involved in the same mission, there needs to be better coordination amongst the groups. Most airports have an Ops Center of some sort, usually with local police, paramedic, fire, operations and maintenance dispatchers, to handle the majority of incoming calls for service throughout the day in the life of an airport. However, TSA, the airlines, and sometimes other major tenants, have their own ops centers on the airport. The Total Airport Operations Center concept, is one where all of these various centers are brought together (to the extent practicable) so you have all the same people in the same room together, working on airport issues as they come up, in a coordinated manner. This is similar to what the San Francisco Airport has been doing for quite some time and it’s a concept that needs more research.

Real Solution Number 3: Looking at technologies that can help airport operators in the surveillance and response to incidents in the terminal.

The US military has developed technology for stand-off improvised explosive device detection, and other types of technologies to attempt to detect or prevent attacks on military convoy’s and security checkpoints. A few years back, TSA tested a wide-scan millimeter wave imaging technology, which can scan a crowd of people as they walk through a corridor and there are other similar types of technologies already in development for the screening checkpoint, that can be used in the public areas. These need to continue to be developed and adapted for public area protection. It’s important to remember that we don’t need to be able to catch every bad actor, if we’ve developed a security system that gives the appearance that they will likely be caught or stopped before causing too much damage, so they go elsewhere, then that facility has done it’s job.

Other technologies that can be useful are gunshot detectors, and even some software that takes the detectors a step further by providing suggestions to police dispatchers about the possible location of the shooter and safe evacuation routes. CCTV is in use at many airports but it’s difficult for a human operator to keep track of everything on all the cameras at once. Software can be applied to look for certain suspicious situations or even individuals. This isn’t perfected yet, but perhaps it’s time to start working on it.

Ultimately, there are things airports can do to effectively reduce the likelihood of a future Ft. Lauderdale type incident. But, none of these are the apparent quick-fixes that many of us look for when something like this happens. I get it – it’s natural to think that hey, if this guy was able to get his gun in baggage claim, let’s just stop everyone from flying with their guns in checked baggage. However, these are complex problems and they require complex and reasoned thinking in order to provide effective solutions. Otherwise we’re just throwing money at easy fixes that don’t contribute one bit to our ability to safely travel in the United States.

 

 

To read more of my posts on aviation security, click HERE.

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7 Responses to Protecting the Airport’s Public Areas

  1. Well articulated, Jeff. I too have been frustrated by the knee jerk reactions that will not actually improve safety and could hinder it. The real focus of airport security is to protect airplanes in flight – a very vulnerable target 35,000 ft above the ground! Any public space, especially crowded ones, are a soft target.

  2. Somewhat aside from the protection of people in the public areas, another glaring deficiency popped-up at Fort Lauderdale. All of the 20,000 some-odd passengers had nowhere to go but find a place to duck and cover on the airport property during the enduring chaos that was created. There was no contingency plan in place for moving them into local hotels or anything. There were obviously no flights in or out for the rest of the day. These people were left to languish without food or water for many hours on end.

    So what do you do with 20-30,000 people? Then to make things worse, imagine this was a terrorist event. The terrorists could melt into a crowd and all 20-30,000 people would become suspects until fully vetted. It might take days to interview that many people. The airport property would look like a disaster relief area after the first day and night had passed with people bedded down in place, fearing for their lives. There would be no flights in or out until the threat was neutralized.

    By the third day, FEMA would be on the property trying to provide food and water. People with medical conditions would have every ambulance in the county busy. There has to be better planning for handling an enormous number of displaced airport patrons.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis Jeff. I already retweeted your CNN tweet under the identity of SeMSnet. Just started reading your security and safety books too.

  4. Well stated Mr. Price, thank you for putting this out there, I hope our leaders in the industry give this a hard look.

  5. Great article Jeff! It is unfortunate that policy people in this country feel the need to appear that they are doing something in response instead of actually doing something productive. One thing that could be pointed out is that airports are usually just like the other soft targets that attract this behavior. Movie theaters, Schools, and airports are places that you can pretty much count on a much smaller percentage of civilians that are armed. As a side note, you will find it very difficult to FedEx or UPS ship a firearm to yourself…impossible actually. I have some personal experience in this subject. It is legal for a person to ship a firearm to themselves but the UPS and FedEx policies will prevent a person from being able to do it.

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