Aviation Summit Panel Focuses on Airport Security

March 9, 2017
Industry leaders stress the use of training and technology in mitigating potential threats to U.S. airports.

The key word on the airports panel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's annual Aviation Summit on March 2, was security. Airport CEOs and a former CIA deputy director discussed ongoing threats and what's being done to reduce them, moderated by ACI-NA President and CEO Kevin Burke, "Every flight begins and ends in an airport and we're a critical part of the business," said Burke.

"Maintaining the safety of the traveling public is a top priority. We want to help improve the passenger experience, but also keep the bad guys out of the back and front of airports," Burke said, giving a quick plug for an uncapped Passenger Facility Charge (PFC).

The session started with former CIA deputy director Michael Morell, who described himself as the "doom and gloom" guy of the panel. "If you look at terrorist threats, it's like an overlapping Venn diagram with two different threats," he said.

First there's direct threats like Al-Qaeda and Isis, who plan attacks in safe havens, said Morell. "They focus on symbols of American and Western power, whose center is airlines and airports. What better symbols are they in a modern world,?" he asked.

The other threat is the lone wolf terrorist, the kid in the basement watching videos and becoming radicalized, said Morell. "They target places where large numbers of people gather, like clubs, malls and airports," he said. "And it's airports that are in the overlap of both circles.”

Kim Day, CEO of Denver International Airport, noted that no airport in America was originally designed for Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints. "Our original checkpoint was in an open area and that area is our biggest vulnerability, so we decided few years ago to consolidate our ticket area and relocate TSA," she said. “It doesn't make sense to move technology from 2002 to a new location because there’s so much innovation now.”

The airport went to TSA asked them to be a partner, said Day, by introducing layers of security and risk-based screening. “Our new screening area will be like what you see at London Heathrow or Amsterdam Schiphol, including automatic bin returns,” she said. “If you or your bag set off an alarm, you are taken out of line, but the line still moves. It’s better security and a better passenger experience.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport CEO Sean Donohue spoke about what’s being done there to adjust in a large facility that was built in 1974. “We understand the risks of security and we know we can't do it on own, so in the past year, we’ve been working with the TSA and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to find ways to work closer,” he said. “For example, the airport is building an operations center that will house TSA, CBP and DFW officials together. It will allow us to drive for more collaboration and coordination and be less reactionary.”

After the attacks at the Brussels and Istanbul airports, DFW stepped up efforts to work with TSA Viper teams and behavior detection officers, said Donohue. “We want to be visible in the public areas” of the airport, he said.

DFW also signed a memorandum of understanding with Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, said Donohue. “We want to learn from them and bring in best practices,” he said.

None of it will be cheap when it comes to infrastructure investments, said Burke, who asked the panel what security will look like in the future. “I believe my children and my grandchildren’s generation will still be dealing with radical Islam,” said Morell. “The reason is because we have focused on stopping terrorists who already exist instead of stopping terrorists in the first place. Until we get our arms around that, it won't get better.”

It’s very expensive to make the changes needed in airport security, said Day. “As you design your airports, you have to make it as flexible as possible so you can make changes as threats change,” she stated.

Airports need to do a better job of helping their employees and vendors understand security threats and risk, said Donohue. “Running employees through security plans is a big part of that. Thanks to airlines, manufacturers, TSA and the FAA, we’re in the safest period in aviation,” he said. “But we won't be complacent. Randomness is important, and we must keep building awareness because security at airports is not business as usual these days.”

Morell noted that airport security is a dynamic situation and lauded the industry for working collectively with TSA and CBP. “It’s all about the customer. We want them to feel secure in the airport environment and move through security, but in a quick way,” he said.