Airport Security, An Oxymoron

Frankly, when I hear all the hubbub about airport security, I have to laugh. As a former security engineer at a nuclear power plant, I know quite a bit about security and perimeter defense, and can tell you that our nation’s airports miss the mark by a wide margin. This, despite the airport operators’ insistence that they are just fine, and that their airport security program assures that the airports and airplanes will be safe.

At most airports that general aviation (GA) planes fly out of, the answer is simple: nothing. To be frank, the GA planes provide little threat to any organized target, since they lack the necessary energy in fuel or mass to make a significant impact against the vast majority of most terrorist targets I (as a non-terrorist) can imagine. That leaves the major airports. You know… O’Hare in Chicago, LAX… the whole bunch of them. When you look at them, you can see the weakness in their defenses a mile away. For example:

Perimeter Defense:

  • At least 2 fences, with a detection system between the fences, are a first step. That way, if someone jumps one fence (say, from the top of a vehicle), they will be picked up by sensors which will alert the security forces, instead of being able to scamper away to cover.
  • Cameras and video capture systems need to be installed. When someone is detected entering the “isolation zone” between the fences, the monitors in the Security Control Room should automatically tune to that location, and away from their normal scan. The bad guys get caught quickly, because
  • security teams can be dispatched to intercept/apprehend them.

THE NEXT TIME YOU ARE AT YOUR BIG COMMERCIAL AIRPORT, LOOK AT THE FENCES. Do you see two fences, with an area between them, and cameras to spot intruders, or do you see a single, simple, easy to defeat fence? From my experience, the chances are pretty good that you’ll only see one… and no cameras.

Replace the somewhat effective barbed wire, with very effective razor wire on the tops of the fences. While this would make the airports look a little tougher, it is a lot harder for your average terrorist to get past a few courses of razor wire than it is for them to toss something over the barbed wire and gain entry.

If you look at modern facilities that provide security, such as a nuclear power plant or high tech development firm, they use more than keycards to control access. The problem with key or identity cards is that they can be used by anyone, at any time. Once you have one, you typically have all the rights and privileges that come along with it, and that includes access to critical parts of the airport. Some airports even use the less effective pushbutton combination lock, or keys to control access to sensitive areas.

Interior Defense Improvements
A biometric system uses a part of your body, such as your hand or eye to recognize you and allow access. This could be used together with an identity card. Unless your card matches up with the same hand or eye that the card belongs to, the door won’t open. If you think this can’t work, there is at least one major Florida amusement park that uses this technology to prevent abuses of its season pass cards. I guess you could say that it’s easier to gain access to the control tower than the water slide.

Federalizing the people who screen passengers may improve the quality of the screening process, but it’s clear that this is only part of the problem. You have to keep the bad guys out of the airport to be effective, and that means that the major airports of our country need a major overhaul of their security infrastructure. That also means that the people who have access to airports need to have background checks — just like the workers at nuclear power plants are subjected to. If you want to work at a nuclear plant, you get fingerprinted, and then checked out by the FBI. At an airport, you typically fill out an application, get hired, and start. Up until recently, that could include starting on the same day that you applied. Now, there are some random crackdowns by the I.N.S. or other governmental agencies, but is that enough?

Tell your congressman and senator that airport security needs to be upgraded. Explain to them that screeners are only part of the solution. Only after the airline and major airports are forced to complete this overhaul and install adequate defenses, will these airports be able to better protect themselves and us from an external threat of terror.