By Jeff Price, Professor, MSU Denver, and lead author, Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats
As the Brussels airport reopens after the devastating suicide bombing attacks last week we are all wondering what we should be doing, and how can we protect ourselves from another such attack.
The first thing we can all do, is do something! Such an attack on an airport is not without precedent. In 2010, a suicide bomber attacked the Moscow Domodedevo International Airport, killing 35 and injuring over 100. And, in 2007, an SUV loaded with explosives detonated outside the terminal building at the Glasgow Airport – the only thing that minimized the damage were vehicle bollards, which prevented the bombers from driving the car through the front doors of the terminal building. Unfortunately, the US aviation industry hardly took notice of either incident and airport security measures did not improve to prevent another such attack. So at the very minimum we should do something, but let’s do the right somethings, not just something that makes us feel better, but still doesn’t make the system any safer.
Here are the top 5 things your airport should be doing:
- There should be alert, engaged and well equipped (body armor, modern weapons and in some cases submachine guns), visible law enforcement personnel patrolling the public areas of the terminal building, including curbside. Terrorists, first and foremost, want to be successful. Therefore, they seek targets where they have the lowest chance of detection, either in pre-incident surveillance, or during the actual attack. Just as no criminal wants to commit a crime with a cop watching, few terrorists do either. The Federal Protective Service, and other federal law enforcement agencies have also deployed armed personnel to certain airports, however, all personnel should be coordinated and included into airport incident response plans (this is not always the case).
- There should be security screening checkpoint lines moving briskly, reducing the creation of densely crowded queue lines. Although an Inspector General’s report last year showed a high rate of failure of TSA personnel to detect test weapons, the system must maintain a balance of risk (when you try to protect everything, you protect nothing). Airport operators may be able to reduce the back ups by eventually establishing more screening areas, but this is a long-term design issue. In the meantime, plain-clothes law enforcement personnel, along with armed and uniformed law enforcement personnel, and active K-9 patrols, should be occurring throughout the checkpoint areas.
- Your airport should be conducting periodic vulnerability assessments and implement the recommendations and have a plan to implement, structural security solutions. Airports are required to conduct vulnerability assessments, but these are classified as sensitive security information. However, you can observe whether previous assessments have been conducted, or updates are currently being implemented. Terminal windows should be glazed (a process similar to what’s used on your car’s front windshield to minimize shattering), bollards should be in place curbside, and there should be adequate open space within the terminal building and around checkpoints. Distance is your biggest ally when it comes to surviving an explosion so densely packed groups of people increase risk. Where crowds cannot be avoided, you should see more law enforcement, more K-9 and more security personnel in the area. Other elements, such as the integration of planters and other large types of furniture or decorations that are solidly rooted into the floor, can provide areas of cover during an explosion (or cover and concealment during an active shooter).
- Airports should make use of unarmed security personnel, and train airport workers spot suspicious activity. While TSA deploys Behavior Detection Officer (BDO) teams, who are trained to spot suspicious individuals, we can easily follow an Israeli model and ensure all airport workers are trained in spotting suspicious activities – this helps create a culture of security and reduces the chances of both criminal and terrorist activity.
- You airport should be conducting real, Homeland Security compliant security exercises, and follow up on the recommendations. Such exercises are required by TSA and the results are usually (and justifiably) classified as sensitive security information, but many times the media and members of the public are used as volunteers in the exercise. A little bit of media coverage of such exercises goes a long to deterrence – reminding ourselves, that the terrorist wants a soft target and doesn’t want to get caught, until they’ve successfully carried out their operation. Seeing a news story about how the airport conducting such anti-terrorism exercises can push the terrorist somewhere else. Note: the airport should also do numerous other mini-exercises along these lines, and should not always publicize the event, nor publicize the security gaps that are identified – but they should act on them. Airport policy-makers should also follow up on vulnerability assessments and exercises to see that funds are appropriated and measures are improved.
Lastly, what can YOU, the individual passenger do?
- Be aware of your surroundings instead of head-down in the phone. You don’t have to be paranoid, but you should pay attention. If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Elevate from condition yellow (healthy awareness) to condition orange (actively looking for threats). If you find a threat, move away and tell someone. When in the terminal building, always have a plan of action. Just like in a movie theater, check the area for exits, areas of cover and concealment, and look around for uniformed police (who are alert – aware and watching the crowd and the areas around the crowd – not head down in their phones either) and active K-9 teams. If you see few (or none), start paying more attention – you may be in a soft target area.
- Support the increase of Passenger Facility Charges for airport operators. Yes, I now this will be a few bucks more on your plane ticket, like $3 (can you sacrifice a Tall Latte with foam for some additional air security?). While the airlines are opposed to the increase, it’s just because it makes the airline ticket price seem higher, which reduces their ability to increase your checked bag and other fees. PFC is collected locally, it doesn’t go off to Washington DC, and the money can be used for increased security measures, such as required security equipment, and terminal infrastructure reinforcement. In 2014, the airlines collected $3.5 billion in bag fees and another $3 billion in reservation cancellation or change fees from you – none of which made you any more secure in the terminal building or went to improving screening. Also, bag fees are not taxed at the same 7.5 percent excise tax rate applied to base airline tickets, so airports lost $265 million in revenue in 2014, that would have gone to airport safety and security related projects. We’re not saying the airlines shouldn’t have their revenue streams, but a PFC increase doesn’t take one dime from the airlines, so they shouldn’t be opposed to it.
- Support the TSA Fairness Act, which requires TSA to screen passengers at small airports. Many small airports, which have temporarily lost air service, also lost their TSA screeners. As they’ve reacquired airline service, TSA hasn’t always come back and lately has encouraged those small airports to make the airports the airline is flying to, to “reverse-screen” those incoming flights. This reduces security from small airports, increases the likelihood of a breach at the larger airports, and creates additional obstacles for small communities to achieve air service. Call you Congressional representatives and tell them to support the TSA Fairness Act, to force TSA (or private contractors) back to the small airports.
- Encourage your local media and politicians to ask the tough questions about the security of your airport and the effectiveness of the TSA. Airport directors are in a tough position, often having to sustain compliance with a variety of conflicting regulations from various agencies, and conflicting interpretations of those regulations from individual regulators. They must also try to manage a multi-million dollar operation that the nation relies upon as part of the national airspace system. But, certain airports, such as Boston/Logan, LAX and others, have managed to increase their security measures significantly, and still juggle the rest of the challenges. The best practices for aviation security are out there and it’s the job of every American citizen to hold their government accountable. If there are problems, then do what you can to support the airports in solving them.
- Be aware of what’s going on in your world. Many homegrown terrorists, and even international terrorists, make mistakes, show signs of radicalization and leave a trail of clues about their planned activity. Do not be afraid to call your local FBI field office to report it. Everyone from the 9/11 hijackers to the attackers on the Brussels airport, made mistakes and left behind clues, which if properly reported and followed, could have averted the attacks.
Lastly, go to the airport and enjoy your flight. Do not let fear drive you away from your business travel needs, nor your personal travel and vacations. Terrorists are bullies, and if you decide not to go on the family vacation because you’re afraid of terrorists, then you’re just making their job that much easier.