Ataturk attack calls for reevaluation of airport security

by Aaron Karp
Jun 29, 2016

If there is going to be screening, it has to be done somewhere, and therefore some crowding somewhere is inevitable.

The notion of having a “secure area” at a major international airport has been blown apart by the terrorist bombings this year at Istanbul Ataturk and Brussels airports.

Since 9/11, airport security has been almost entirely focused on screening passengers and baggage headed to flights. “Airside” areas of airports beyond checkpoints used to screen passengers, baggage and airport/airline employees were labeled “secure” by transportation security authorities focused on keeping bad actors and dangerous items off of aircraft.

Needless to say, a rethinking of airport security is now in order. The Brussels and Ataturk attacks, plus the long lines witnessed at major US airport security checkpoints this spring, mandate a real questioning of the way things have been done for the past 15 years.

But there are no easy answers. At Ataturk, in fact, screening had been pushed all the way back to terminal entrances. That, of course, creates crowds at terminal entrances that can be targeted—and that appears to be what happened at Ataturk. If there is going to be screening, it has to be done somewhere, and therefore some crowding somewhere is inevitable.

Airports Council International-Europe has pointed out that following the Brussels attacks, additional security measures were put in place at “landside” areas at airports across Europe. “These additional measures are aimed at reinforcing surveillance and increasing detection capabilities and they remain in place at this time,” ACI-Europe said in a statement issued following the Ataturk bombing, noting that the Istanbul “attack took place at an airport that has systematic landside security checks on all passengers and visitors as they enter the terminal buildings. Many of the fatalities occurred while people were queueing to access the terminal building—an unfortunate reminder that this kind of additional security measures tends to move the target rather than actually securing it.”

Utilizing nearly all airport security resources for protecting flights—most agencies responsible for airport security, including the US Transportation Security Administration, view landside security as largely the province of local police—no longer seems appropriate. I’ve been covering airport security issues since before 9/11, and many experts have long cited checkpoint queues as a major vulnerability. The very apparatus set up to secure airline flights itself creates a security risk for airline passengers.

There needs to be some real thought and imagination applied. It was common in air transport circles after 9/11 to say, “We’re now in a post-9/11 world.” Airports and airlines had to always keep this in mind when designing facilities and planning operations. Well, we are now in a post-Brussels and post-Ataturk world.

Sadly, there may be no golden solution. As ACI-Europe cautioned, “We must face the reality that when dealing with a terror threat based on suicide bombing, no security measures can ensure 100% protection.”

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