Counter-Terrorism Global Strategy

AAI Focus

January 16, 2018

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With evolving security threats, managing security at airports also has to keep evolving. We take a look at how airport security has changed over the years to become the sophisticated system that it is now.

Until the 1960s, airport security was relatively simple, requiring nothing more than civilian police to provide protection against conventional crimes such as theft, pickpocketing, vandalism, and breaking and entering. However, in the 1960s civil aviation became a recognised target for politically motivated crimes. These crimes came to include general acts of terrorism, such as mass shootings and bombings and, especially, aircraft hijacking.

Although the first aircraft hijacking occurred in 1931 in Peru, such events were rare, with no more than a handful each year, and generally without any political motive. However, by the late 1960s, politically motivated hijackings to Cuba had become common. In 1969, for example, there were 87 hijackings worldwide, of which 71 were related to Cuba, which typically granted political asylum to the hijackers.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which quickly recognised that passenger airliners had become political targets, responded in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s with three major conventions covering ‘unlawful acts against civil aviation’.

These conventions resulted in many ICAO recommendations for the enforcement of greater security at airports. However, because ICAO has no national jurisdiction, the organisation’s recommendations needed to be translated into individual national laws. Following the Tokyo Convention, the ICAO measures were widely adopted by most national civil aviation authorities, although the efficiency of the security procedures adopted varied greatly throughout the world. Countries that had no history of domestic civil terrorism became overconfident in their security measures, believing that only international flights were real targets for terrorist attacks. However, as terrorist acts continued to occur against passenger airliners, security measures gradually became less lax in most jurisdictions.

Initially, the principal objective of security measures was to ensure that passengers could not board aircraft with weapons or explosives. Passengers were scanned with magnetometers and suspicious individuals selected for body searches; carry-on baggage was routinely passed through X-ray machines. Public access to the aprons and operational areas was denied, except for authorised staff, as was unnecessary access to the non-public areas of the terminal. As control of passengers and carry-on baggage tightened, hijackings were increasingly replaced by acts of sabotage to aircraft, carried out by explosive devices hidden in baggage carried in the airplane’s hold. By the late 1990s, the ICAO had produced recommendations that all hold baggage should be screened for explosive and dangerous devices. The operational areas of civil airfields were enclosed by security fences, with manned access gates and visual surveillance of most of the areas by closed-circuit television.

The September 11 attacks in 2001 produced a sea change in much of the thinking surrounding airport security. In a period of two hours, a single terrorist organisation wreaked an unprecedented level of destruction in the United States of America (US) by using hijacked airliners as missiles. For the first time, civil transport aircraft, loaded with passengers and, most significantly, with a nearly full load of fuel, had been converted to destructive weapons.

Authorities responded to these hijackings with an intensification of security procedures at airports around the world. Passenger and baggage search procedures were made significantly more thorough, involving more careful screening for known terrorists (including the creation of various no-fly and watch lists of risky individuals) and potentially problematic carry-on items. Passenger terminals increased the level and sophistication of security equipment, the number of staff employed in security procedures, and the space provided for security operations. As a result, recommended check-in times for departing international passengers at many airports became as much as three hours before scheduled departure.

Hand baggage and checked baggage both became subject to strict scrutiny following September 11, 2001. Many airports installed additional X-ray equipment, for spotting metal items in baggage or concealed in clothing, and massive Explosive Detection Systems (EDS), which can detect trace molecules released by explosive materials.

Another problem for security at airports is the possibility of a car or truck being loaded with explosives and detonated near people or facilities. In particular, the threat from such ‘car bombs’ forced greater caution with the location and operation of passenger pick-up areas and airport parking facilities. Parking garages that were integrated into the design of the passenger terminal pose a special danger. At those airports where parking design results in a threat to the safety of the terminal building from potential car bombs, operational procedures have been reevaluated and changed.

The threat of terrorist attacks has meant that for the foreseeable future and probably permanently, civil aviation cannot return to a situation of relaxed security. Eventually, access to airport terminals might require that all persons pass through some form of security check prior to check-in, that all passengers and baggage be thoroughly scrutinised for weapons and explosives, and that passengers even undergo profiling interviews to identify potential problem travellers.

Expected Role of Passengers and other Stakeholders at the Airport

It is a universal concept that security is everybody‘s concern. Passengers, stakeholders and various other users can play a significant role. They are the eyes and ears of the airport management; their input can further enhance the security apparatus at the airports.

In case any lapse is noticed, the same can be notified immediately to the security staff at airports to avoid any untoward incident and safeguarding international civil aviation against acts of unlawful interference.




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