Airport security chiefs question controls outside terminals

The EU has failed to make airports competitive, writes Thomas Reynaert. [Sean Munson/Flickr]

Following the terrorists attacks in Brussels on 22 March, airport security chiefs are calling for heightened intelligence cooperation.

“The terrorists were known by the police, so they should have never shown up at the terminal,” lamented Wilfried Covent, Head of Security at the Brussels Airport.

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On Tuesday (24 May), during a debate organised by the Airports Council International and the Association of European Airlines, Covent stressed that intelligence sharing among different law enforcement bodies is one of the first things to improve. This is a “clear responsibility” of governments, he added.

Bart Mos, the top security official at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, was “surprised” to see that one of the attackers returned to Europe via the airport he oversees, and that the authorities did not act, despite the fact that he had been an expelled by Turkey for being a foreign fighter.

“How was it possible?,” he asked. Mos agreed that intelligence “should be better”, although he admitted that there are difficulties in doing so.

Following the attacks in Brussels and Paris, member states have pledged to strengthen intelligence cooperation. To date, however, only half a dozen of member states share information to fight terrorism.

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But the turf war between different bodies happens inside countries, even inside airports, Mos confessed.

“Intelligence is absolutely critical,” Carlos Mestre, the Head of Unit for Aviation Security at the European Commission, pointed out.

A flexible toolkit

Building up a new culture of cooperation between security services will take time.

Meanwhile, instead of a prescriptive regulatory approach, Mestre proposed a “toolkit” where airports could pick different instruments and solutions depending on the local context.

“The risk assessment has to be done at local level to avoid overreacting,” he said.

The result would not be a single measure, but a mix of technological instruments and solutions to be deployed, in order to guarantee that the response is “effective, proportional and risk-based”, he explained

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In the aftermath of the attacks at Brussels airport, security installed metal detectors at the entry points to the building. The new measures infuriated passengers as they had to wait for hours to get inside.

Covent explained that police unions imposed these controls in other to protect “their own people” and that “they did not care so much of the risk for passengers outside,” he said.

Weeks after the attack, the controls outside the terminal hall remain, although only for some passengers. Covent admitted that “nobody knows” which criteria the police follows to decide which travellers get screened, suggesting that it was done randomly. “I think it depends on how much queue there is,” he said.

Looking ahead, Bart Mos pointed to a combination of cameras and biometrics.

Schipol installed 12,000 cameras over the last 15 years, which today helps to detect “suspicious behaviour” because “body language says a lot”, Mos stressed.

New camera prototypes can recognise suspects up to 40 meters away, which would facilitate the police work and reduce the risks they are exposed.

Besides technological improvements and intelligence cooperation, Wilfried Covent noted that passengers also have to accept a “higher risk” when they travel by plane compared to when they drive a car.

Covent said that the terminals of the future would have to split “as much as possible” passenger flows, by facilitating remote check-ins, and even baggage drops, at bus terminals or parking lots.

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Regulation 300/2008 establishes the common basic standards for aviation security for all member states.
Common basic standards comprise:

  • Screening of passengers, cabin baggage and hold baggage
  • Airport security (access control, surveillance)
  • Aircraft security checks and searches
  • Screening of cargo and mail
  • Screening of airport supplies
  • Staff recruitment and training

These principles are oversight at two levels:

Primary oversight is the responsibility of member states. The national governments have to appoint an appropriate authority responsible for monitoring the correct implementation of aviation security requirements.

The European Commission is required to carry out inspections of the correct implementation by member states. This includes inspections of the "appropriate authority" in the member state as well as inspections at airports, air carriers and entities implementing security measures.

The inspections are carried out by nine full-time inspectors, while 100 remain ready for occasional deployment.

There are on average 35 inspections per year of both the member state’s responsible authorities and the airports.

If an inspection discloses shortcomings, the member states are required to correct the shortcomings swiftly, and to apply compensatory measures in the meantime if needed.

Twenty-five initial inspections of airports were conducted during 2014, a similar number to those carried out in 2013.

Most of the deficiencies found are related to human factor issues. These mainly occur in the areas of screening and aircraft security as well as in the implementation of certain cargo security requirements.

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