Airport security needs a 9/11 style upgrade

Updated 4:50 PM EST, Sun January 8, 2017
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Story highlights

Jeffrey C. Price: Airports are lacking the same post 9/11 safety upgrades that airplanes have

Both an increased police presence and a proper training of airport staff are important steps to improve safety, he writes

Editor’s Note: Jeffrey C. Price is a professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State University of Denver, and lead author of “Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats.” The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) —  

The recent attack at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport calls into question of how well our airports are protecting the public areas. In the history of aviation, there have been well over 1,000 attacks on airplanes, mostly using bombs, sabotage and hijackings. However, there have only been a few dozen direct attacks on the airport.

This recent attack was not without precedent. A similar attack occurred in 1972 at what is now the Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. Terrorists flew into the airport, proceeded to the baggage claim area where they retrieved the weapons from their checked bags and opened fire, killing 26 and injuring dozens more. The reforms in the aviation industry after the 9/11 attacks refocused the industry on protecting aircraft from bombs and hijackers, and increased requirements for those who receive airport credentials in order to counter the insider threat, but did little to improve the security of airport public areas.

Jeff Price
Courtesy of Jeff Price
Jeff Price

Among the many duties of the TSA, policing the airport is not one of them. TSA’s primary function is to screen bags and people, and also provide a regulatory oversight function to ensure airports and airlines carry out their security program requirements. Having airport police available to respond to “acts of unlawful interference” is most directly the responsibility of the airport operator, not the TSA. Local police, paid for by local airport revenue dollars, are the primary protection force at most any US airport.

The response requirements are rather minimal – police must be able to respond to issues at the screening checkpoints and on inbound or outbound aircraft (usually air rage type incidents, but also bomb threats and attempted hijackings), and support the contingency and incident management plans of the airport. While having an “active shooter” plan is not a specific requirement under the TSA regulations, most airports have included one in their security program as a proactive measure.

With the attacks in airports in Brussels and Istanbul last year and other recent attacks, it’s time for airport security to get the overhaul that aircraft security received after 9/11. So what should be done?

Let’s start with what shouldn’t be done. Let’s not move the screening checkpoints, which only relocates the crowd and thus the location of the next attack, and if you move the checkpoints too close to the curb, you put those waiting at the queue line in the blast radius of a much larger vehicle bomb. Second, we don’t need more TSA screeners being deployed to wander the public areas, but the TSA does need to collaboratively engage with the airport industry to develop the best tactics and strategies to protect the public areas, rather than just telling airports what they should do. Third, we don’t need to change the regulations on allowing firearms to be transported in checked baggage. Anyone can walk into a public area with a firearm, no matter if they brought it with them in checked baggage, or shipped it to a local receiving center, drove over to pick it up and brought it back to the airport. These measures will make us feel better, but provide few if any, security benefits.

We need to take some lessons from others, like the Israelis and how they patrol the walled city of Jerusalem, the US military and how they patrol checkpoints and use technologies to detect explosives and weapons on those approaching a checkpoint and tap into the knowledge of the security professionals from other industries. Most immediately, we need more active, visible, armed and body armored police personnel patrolling public areas. Police are deterrence and provide immediate response. Most bad guys want to kill as many people as they can before they have to engage someone who is trained to shoot back, so they are typically going to look for areas where they don’t see the police.

Airport revenue funds airport police, but not all airports have the money to get the police they need. TSA can help here by establishing a funding stream to provide grants to airports to increase their police personnel. The Department of Homeland Security has already deployed Federal Protective Service personnel to some international airports, which does the same thing, putting more armed law enforcement in a position to respond.

We need to also add plainclothes police personnel and security personnel to conduct covert surveillance of crowds in the public areas, install gunshot locators in the terminal building, conduct more drills and training on response to such incidents, ensure panic alarms are available and in working order and confirm all evacuation routes and doors are clearly marked. Airport personnel should also be trained in how to assist individuals during such an incident by hiding them in closets, shops, utility hallways and other places.

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The focus of an active shooter incident is to stop the killing, then, stop the dying. Airports can stop the killing by having effective law enforcement patrols and other measures to deter, detect and respond to the shooter. Airports can stop the dying by training airport staff, tenants, airline employees and others in what to during the attack (how to get off the X), and immediately afterwards. Some airports have established Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT) using personnel that already works at the airport, and given them training in how to respond to critical incidents. In some cases, they’ve provided Individual first aid kits and training on how to use them. With the strengthening of the screening side of aviation security, it’s harder to get a bomb on board a plane or hijack it. But now it’s time to strengthen the airport public area side. The time has come for airports to not just “have a plan,” but to look at comprehensive, effective ways to prepare for, mitigate, respond and recover from attacks into public areas.