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.
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.
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
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.