No one needs reminding of the shockwaves that the terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center buildings sent around the world. The events that we have all come to know simply as 9/11 have affected many kinds of business, but none more severely than the air travel industry.
The impact of the attacks quite rightly put more intense pressure on internal airport security, with the focus mainly on preventing hazardous materials or weapons being taken onto an aircraft. Events since then, however, have reminded airport operators that the safety of a plane and its passengers can be compromised in a number of ways, not only by bombs or hijackers.
One danger seen by many after 9/11 was that the air travel industry was playing catch-up with terrorists, taking the necessary measures to beef up security in a particular area only once it had been shown to be tragically vulnerable. Future safety may well lie in the ability to think more proactively about potential weaknesses. One of these weaknesses may well be the perimeter of an airport.
As major airports expand and lesser ones start to welcome more traffic – particularly from the bargain airlines – airport perimeters continue to grow in size. The perimeter of London’s Heathrow airport, for example, measures some 13 miles.
The long, thin line of fencing surrounding a busy airport may require considerable investment in barrier materials, video monitoring, access control or alarm systems in order to prevent a breach.
Furthermore, a breach in the fence allowing unauthorised people onto the airport grounds is no longer the only danger. New fears are arising over the potential use of shoulder-fired missile systems to fire at aeroplanes either in flight or on the ground. This puts a new kind of pressure on the security of the perimeter, as barriers have not previously been designed with this kind of attack in mind.
At a time when the airline industry is suffering and needs to get passengers into the air to make ends meet, security is a primary concern, so it seems that greater investment in perimeter security will be unavoidable in the near future.
SURFACE-TO-AIR MISSILE THREAT
Many experts believe that the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and the problems inherent in policing a large perimeter leave aircraft highly vulnerable. A growing number of incidents in recent years have confirmed this fear, and left severe doubts about the level of perimeter security at some airports.
In November 2002, for example, an Israeli passenger jet was the target of an attempted missile attack in Kenya. Earlier that year the FBI had issued warnings that Al-Qaeda was among the organisations that had access to weapons such as SAMs, and the recovery of almost 6000 of these weapons in Afghanistan lent credibility to such warnings.
The Israeli Arkia charter plane attacked in Kenya is thought to have been lucky to survive the attack, and the incident forced airport authorities to realise that the danger in fact lies beyond the perimeter. A SAM attack, for instance, can be launched from anywhere within a 4km radius.
In December 2002 troops were deployed at Heathrow, the UK's largest airport and one of the largest anywhere. It is thought the deployment was in response to the perceived threat of SAM attacks. While no specific warnings were given, the possibility of such a missile downing a commercial jet packed with passengers had risen since the attacks in Mombassa.
The Israeli jet had been targeted with a SAM 7 Strela-2 missile launcher, though the supposed age of the weapons and their poor condition was likely to have contributed to the attack's failure. Nevertheless, airports and security services know that they cannot rely on these kinds of quirks to save them in the future.
In fact, past evidence shows the danger to be very tangible. In the late 1970s, for instance, Air Rhodesia aircraft were shot down by SAMs fired by Joshua Nkomo's Zimbabwe People's Revolution Army.
THE PERIMETER IS THE NEW FRONT LINE
Following the Mombassa attacks airlines looked at the possibility of installing systems on aeroplanes themselves to counter a missile attack. Given the size of many fleets – not to mention the cost of systems such as infra-red deflectors and other countermeasures – this solution appears uneconomic, especially when revenues for airlines are being squeezed. This leaves the perimeter of the airport itself as the battleground.
The most obvious option to increase the effectiveness of perimeter security would be to implement a no-go zone around the airport, beyond the existing perimeter fence. However, given the range of weapons from which planes are in danger, this option appears to be largely impractical.
The only remaining tactic is to increase perimeter security with more effective patrols, policing and technology. For a large airport like Heathrow, which not only has a huge perimeter but is also surrounded by residential housing, this could still mean a huge investment. Increasing the number of personnel doing patrols along and outside the perimeter could be expensive.
TECHNOLOGY IS KEY
The good news for airline operators and aviation authorities is that technology developers have been designing perimeter security systems for a wide range of applications – both civil and military – for some time. Adapting such systems to the unique demands of airports may require some re-engineering, but the kit is steadily becoming more readily available.
The UK's National Air Traffic Services (NATS) along with UK Customs and Excise are among those organisations that have invested in perimeter security systems that are designed to provide high detection rates for intrusion. While these may be useful for airports too, in so far as they can detect a person trying to climb or cut through a fence, they do not address the missile threat.
What may prove more effective are video motion detectors that can have an extended range beyond the perimeter itself, or more conventional CCTV systems, though these still require significant levels of manpower in order to be truly effective.
Video-based devices also require integrated networking in order to provide comprehensive protection and detection. They also involve putting a significant amount of electronic equipment on the perimeter, making it more vulnerable to tampering.
In the future, however, systems are likely to emerge that provide integrated, networked surveillance and detection tools, while reducing the amount of exposed electronic equipment. The hope in the airline industry is that these systems will arrive in time to prevent another attack.