Airport security: Can attacks be prevented?

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The EgyptAir crash renews questions about airport security

After Brussels attacks, airport security was already stepped up globally

CNN  — 

As travelers around the world absorb the implications of this week’s crash of EgyptAir Flight 804, questions are being raised about how to improve airport security.

Unlike the March terror attacks on the Brussels Airport and Maelbeek metro station, the reason for the disappearance of the EgyptAir flight while en route from Paris to Cairo is not yet known.

The jet had routine maintenance checks in Cairo before it left for Paris, the airline said. Earlier Wednesday, the jet had been in Eritrea and Tunisia, data from flight tracking websites show.

There had already been more police and military personnel at major international airports in Europe, the United States and around the world in response to the Brussels attacks, and travelers should still arrive earlier because of increased preflight security.

That’s a typical response after an attack, says aviation security expert Richard Bloom, but that’s not the only way to halt future attacks.

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Detecting threats well before they arrive at the airport is key.

“The United States and Israel have two of the best aviation security operations in the world,” says Bloom, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University’s chief academic officer and director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies.

“They engage in intelligence gathering operations and identify people who are a threat way before they get anywhere near the airport,” he says. “The farther away you handle it, neutralizing the threat, the better off you are.”

Airport security isn’t terribly complicated, says Bloom, who consults with airports about security. He advises clients that they need to collect and analyze data about possible threats, study their facility’s vulnerabilities and figure out the risks to the airport.

Based on that risk and available funds, government and airport officials can decide what to spend on human and technological security options.

Does the Israeli model work?

The gold standard for airport security is Israel, which exists in conflict with many of its neighbors in the Middle East. Its airport screening process is especially rigorous, starting when travelers buy plane tickets to and from the country.

In addition to the intelligence-gathering and passenger scrutiny that travelers can’t see, there’s a security check on the road leading into Israel’s largest airport, Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport.

There’s another check before travelers enter the terminal, and then they go through the preflight security screening that’s required in airports around the globe.

Adopting similar measures in other parts of the world is a question of cost and scale.

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In Israel, about 16.3 million passengers flew into and out of Ben Gurion last year, according to Airports Council International, the global trade representative of airports.

In contrast, the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris handled more than 65 million passengers last year, making it the ninth-busiest airport in the world, ACI figures show.

On an even larger scale, some 800 million revenue-paying passengers flew on U.S. carriers last year, according to U.S. government data.

The United States has 485 commercial service airports, says ACI, which represents more than half of them.

That’s why bringing Israel’s system to the United States would be cost-prohibitive, says aviation security consultant Jeff Price of Leading Edge Strategies.

“If we want to do (in the United States) what Israel does, the cost would be extraordinary,” Price says. “Budgets would be as least 10 times higher.”

Are there drawbacks to tighter security?

Financial hurdles aren’t the only barriers to a more stringent airport security system.

Critics have accused both Israel and the United States of racial profiling in aviation security procedures.

Last year, Israel’s High Court of Justice refused to ban racial profiling in a case brought by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. The court did leave the door open for the group to file a case in the future.

The U.S. Transportation Security Administration, established after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, touts its evolution from a “one-size-fits-all security screening approach to a risk-based, intelligence-driven strategy.”

This August 2015 photo shows EgyptAir Airbus A320 with the registration SU-GCC taking off from Vienna International Airport in Austria.
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Yet that strategy, which includes a behavior detection and analysis program that the agency says is scientifically substantiated, has long been criticized by passengers, security analysts and civil liberties advocates as flawed and discriminatory. The American Civil Liberties Union sued for records related to the program in 2015 to gauge its effectiveness.

That’s in addition to the more recent complaints about hours-long TSA security lines at many U.S. airports, a combination of increased passenger volume and decreased front-line security personnel.

In Europe, each nation administers its own aviation security with European Union member states and a handful of closely aligned countries operating under overarching rules established by the European Commission in 2002.

Implementation of those standards varies, even within European countries, from airport to airport, says Price, declining to name specific airports.

Can you even see tighter security?

In the meantime, experts predict tighter security measures at airports worldwide.

Ordinary travelers likely won’t notice most of them, such as increased intelligence-gathering, more explosives detection devices and random security screenings of flight crews and airport personnel.

Brendan Koerner, a contributing editor at Wired and the author of “The Skies Belong to Us,” which details the hijackings of the 1960s and 1970s that led to increased security at U.S. airports, expects “a wholesale reconsideration of where the security curtain, so to speak, begins in airports.”

“As of right now, of course, you can pull your car right up to the curb at any major airport, just feet away from the doors that lead to the ticketing areas,” Koerner says.

He expects more barriers between the drop-off areas and main doors to reduce the chances of improvised explosive device attacks via vehicles.

But there’s just no way to prevent all attacks, experts say.

“I’m not sure how much more we can ramp up security without seriously infringing on the freedoms that are so integral to our lives,” Koerner says.

“An armed guard at every door throughout the world? That seems unworkable and, to be frank, precisely the sort of overreaction that the Islamic State wants to invite.”

And even that might not prove 100% effective.

“Even when you do everything right, bad things still can happen,” Bloom says.