Airports Addressing the Emerging Threat

As we travel this holiday season, pressing through throngs of passengers and scrambling to disrobe for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), we should appreciate the fact that there’s an incredibly complex system-of-systems in place to provide us with a safe travel experience. Under the watchful eyes of the TSA, US airports are responsible for assuring a continuously secure environment within the confines of transportation facilities fraught with opportunities for illicit access. In some cases, surrounded by thousands of acres of land, forests and water, bordered by neighborhoods, surface transportation networks, and mixed land use, airports must also manage and maintain a flawless aviation safety footprint in accordance with a number of federal, state and local regulations, while securing the traveling public from potential attackers who would do them harm.  Balancing competing financial pressures and regulatory compliance demands, airports execute their responsibilities through design, construction, operations and maintenance of security systems, including costs associated with law enforcement, special response teams (SRT or SWAT), medical and fire fighting, security operations staff and maintenance personnel to service technical systems. Several airport operators are on the leading edge of security technology and system testing, and deserve recognition for leaning forward in order to protect the traveling public.

Since September, 2001, the US as well as the international aviation community has placed an ever-increasing emphasis on securing airframes, airports and supporting transportation elements. The American traveling public has been living under the assumption that the Federal government has all regulatory and operational responsibility for US air security. The TSA is responsible for regulating and in most cases it operates the US passenger screening checkpoints at airports, generally focused on detecting and stopping attackers from secreting weapons onboard an aircraft. However, it’s important to note that the passenger screening checkpoint is only one piece of a multi-layered security complex that permeates the very fiber of airports.  The vast majority of security measures at airports are managed, operated and to a significant level, funded by the airport operator, not the Federal Government.

Think tanks, intelligence analysts and even “futurists” contemplate scenarios on how new attacks may be executed against the air transportation system, while regulators and airport authorities work to counter that threat with reasonable and prudent measures. Efforts like this are meant to guide the Federal Government in its investment decisions related to transportation security and serve as a benchmark for risk-based security mitigation efforts. Airports can and do use similar analytical processes to consider threats specific to that particular airport environment.

Coping with emerging threats using countering technologies has in some cases placed airports inside the research and development cycle of new technologies. These pilot programs and associated technology deployments offer valuable operational data for the industry and, to the credit of the airport authorities that are willing to take that step, the industry has benefited.

These public agencies, which must balance limited resources and conflicting priorities, should be congratulated for a posture of leaning forward to test, implement and integrate new technologies. A subset of airports, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), Boston Logan and  Dallas-Ft. Worth, are prime examples of such operators that place significant resources to protect their aviation systems.  They understand that security is not just about a single system, nor do they rely on legacy, “fighting the last war” methods of addressing airport security. These authorities are members of a select group of transportation entities that have adopted new technologies as well as system integration of technologies and are totally committed to securing the traveling public. Not simply throwing up a Maginot Line to meet the letter of the federal regulation, these quasi-public entities work with state-of-the-art systems that collect and fuse sensor data to secure the entire environment. Indeed, some of these systems are new, emerging technologies being operated in field environs for the first time, and lessons will continue to be learned from these deployments that benefit the entire air transportation security system.

So, when you travel through one our Nation’s busiest airports this season, appreciate the intricate set of systems and processes, swirling around a myriad of regulations geared to providing the safest transportation system in the world, and protected and operated by a dedicated set of people who work for airport organizations.

Mike Cheston is a Senior Subject Matter Expert on staff at Aviation Management Associates, Inc. located in Alexandria, Virginia with over 30 years of aviation operations, safety and security experience. He has managed international airports, led security, C2 Center system design teams and worked as the PM and senior subject matter expert (SSME) for the Aviation Security Working Group at the FAA’s Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO). A retired US Marine Colonel, he served as an Intelligence Officer, Combat Arms Officer and Battalion Commander. He currently consults as a security SME in support of US and foreign aviation security program design and development.  

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