With the threats to airport security evolving rapidly, it is important for security providers to take a proactive approach to mitigating the risks. Kevin Brown, CEO of Perth Airport, explains how the airport and others like it aim to stay one step ahead.
September 2016 marked 15 years since the 9/11 attacks. In amongst the coverage, a central question emerged: how had the world changed in the interim, and what had been done to lower the risk of such an attack happening again?
There can be no doubt that airport security has moved on since 2001. Over the course of the last decade and a half, we have seen the introduction of tight baggage restrictions, full body scanners at airports, and a litany of new regulations from bodies like the TSA.
On the other hand, with threats continuing to evolve, it is important that security does too. The real question is how security providers can stay one step ahead – foiling new threats as they arise, rather than simply closing the security gaps of the past.
As recent attacks have demonstrated, there is no room for complacency. In March this year, 17 people died in a suicide bombing at Brussels Zaventem Airport. This took place in the check-in area, an unsecured section of the airport that anybody could enter. Despite all that has been done to ensure in-flight security, airports themselves have been dubbed a “soft target”.
It isn’t hard to find other examples. In June, a gun and bomb attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport killed 41 people and injured 239. This too raised questions about public access to airports – while the airport had X-ray scanners at the entrance to the terminal, security checks in the car park were limited. Then there was the Moscow airport attack in 2011, in which 38 people perished in the arrivals area.
Factor in the continued threats to planes (underscored by the EgyptAir hijacking in March), and it is clear that security remains a grave concern throughout the aviation sector.
At Perth Airport, the fourth busiest in Australia, these issues are never far from operators’ minds. As CEO Kevin Brown explains, personnel are trained to keep an eagle eye on potential vulnerabilities.
“Perth Airport delivers rigorous security training and awareness to its team members, has comprehensive physical and technical security measures in place and maintains a highly evolved security culture,” he says. “In response to a challenging security landscape, the Australian Government takes a risk-based, intelligence-driven, approach to aviation security.”
Earlier this year, in the wake of the Brussels attacks, Australia’s airports stepped up their security measures. Police presence was increased, and Border Force personnel postponed their planned strike action.
“Security measures at these airports are multi-layered and may involve armed mobile, canine and foot patrols, static guarding as well as specialist response armed capability,” a spokesperson for the Australian Federal Police told news.com.au at the time. “A range of technical measures such as extensive CCTV also support these security measures.”
According to counterterrorism expert Clark Jones, who spoke to news.com.au in July, airports in Australia are “very secure” relative to those elsewhere.
“Our police and intelligence capabilities are far more sophisticated than those in many other countries,” he said. “We have international co-operation arrangements that are very strong and authorities very much have their finger on the pulse in relation to that.”
All this said, the country’s terrorism threat level remains at ‘probable’. In effect, this means that individuals or groups have developed both the intent and the capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia, and operators need to be held to the highest standards.
Australia’s aviation environment is regulated through the Aviation Transport Security Regulations (2005) and the Aviation Transport Security Act (2004). These measures, which are based on standards set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), attempt to safeguard against ‘unlawful interference with aviation’.
Since 2006, airports around the world have had liquid, aerosol and gel (LAG) restrictions in place, Australia being no exception. While domestic flights are not subject to these restrictions, international passengers are barred from carrying liquid containers above 100ml in their hand luggage.
Passengers, and their baggage, may also be tested for traces of explosives using Explosive Trace Detection equipment. In order to guard against profiling, people are randomly selected for this purpose using an electronic randomiser. They may also be chosen to pass through a body scanner.
“Being a security controlled airport, all passengers and visitors passing through to secure areas, and their bags, are screened for prohibited items and weapons,” explains Brown. “In mid-2012, the Australian Government deployed micro-millimetre body scanners at all major Australian airports. These scanners detect non-metallic items and explosives concealed on a person quickly and reliably.”
These scanners are less controversial than the X-ray body scanners (also known as backscatter machines) notoriously removed from airports in 2013. While X-ray body scanners could accurately detect hidden items, there were concerns about heightened cancer risk due to ionising radiation.
The increase in risk was tiny – according to David Brenner, the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Colombia University Medical Center, each person had a one in ten million chance of developing cancer as a result of a backscatter scan. However, considering the number of people scanned, this scaled up to around 100 cases a year.
There were also privacy concerns, in that the X-rays showed a degree of anatomical detail. The newer scanners not only eliminate radiation concerns, but, through projecting possible hidden items onto a generic body, are less intrusive too.
“All body scanners in Australia use non-ionising millimetre-wave technology,” says Brown. “Passengers being scanned by millimetre-wave body scanners are exposed to low levels of electromagnetic energy. These levels are comparable to passive exposure to a mobile phone used several metres away.”
Over the last 12 months, Perth Airport has introduced three new passenger screening points to enhance its existing facilities. These have helped speed up security checks, which can be an immense source of frustration. (Take the widely reported delays in US airports this summer, which stretched to three hours in some cases, and led to airport chiefs deploying clowns to lighten the mood.)
“Our additional screening facilities are designed to maintain the highest level of security by making use of tracking sensors, sophisticated screening technology and equipment monitoring to expedite the screening process,” explains Brown.
Perth Airport also stations customer service representatives at key points, to assist passengers with new and existing security requirements. Because tighter security, as a general rule, translates to more hassle for passengers, it is important that the quality of their experience is taken into account.
Of course, any given airport is limited in terms of what it can do alone. There are currently a number of international projects underway to improve security screening. These are driven by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airports Council International (ACI).
“Australian Airports, including Perth Airport, contribute to, and participate in, these projects,” says Brown. “The most significant of these projects is ‘Smart Security’ – a project focused on strengthening security, increasing operational efficiency and improving the passenger experience.”
Formerly known as ‘Checkpoint of the Future’, Smart Security works on the basis that today’s screening model is not sustainable. With air travel projected to grow, and security threats all but certain to evolve, the project wants to create “a continuous journey from curb to airside, where passengers proceed through security with minimal inconvenience, where security resources are allocated based on risk, and where airport facilities can be optimised.”
While this is a long-term goal, many of its constituent elements are already available, and have been trialed in airports such as Geneva, London Heathrow, Amsterdam Schiphol, London Gatwick and Melbourne. These include adaptable risk-based screening capabilities; the use of biometrics for passenger differentiation; and new passenger processing systems.
There are various other measures in place that could heighten security still further. At London’s Heathrow, the new terminals leave a 30m gap between the road and the airport building – a precaution designed to minimise the impact of car bombs. The UK government has also issued guidance for terminal design, such as glass that stays in its frame after a blast.
Perhaps most excitingly, new equipment is being trialed in Britain and the United States that would enable airports to ease their LAG restrictions. The scanners, based on CT technology, would take detailed images of a passenger’s hand luggage and spare them from having to remove their liquids and laptops.
Of course, there is no way of completely eliminating security threats. For instance, all the screening measures in the world would struggle to eradicate the so-called ‘trusted insider’ threat, which many security experts have identified as a serious risk.
In the news.com.au interview, Clarke Jones called tighter security “just a band aid solution” adding that “it doesn’t matter how much you secure an airport, people will find a way around the system.”
But while it may be impossible to terror-proof an airport entirely, it is clear that existing measures do a great deal to improve their safety. For the 13 million people who travel through Perth Airport annually, this is a reassuring point to keep in mind.
This article appears in the 2016 vol 2 edition of Future Airport