An Airport Idea Whose Time Has Come

Last week saw a warning by Vincent Gilles, president of the largest police union in Belgium, of a serious security problem at Brussels Airport, citing systematic security flaws, bureaucratic incompetence and the employment of baggage handlers with criminal records.

The warning coincided with the publication of an open letter from the Brussels airport police, expressing deep concern about the level of security at the airport and the potential for its infiltration by terrorists.

The letter claimed that police had sent “strong daily signals regarding the overall security at the airport” to Belgian authorities but that no measures were taken in response. It also blamed a policy of “affirmative action towards certain ethnic minorities” that led to the hiring of convicted criminals in sensitive parts of the airport, particularly in baggage handling, placing, as the letter put it, “the fox among the chickens.”

Threats to passengers, however, exist even at airports’ open ticket counter areas, as the recent deadly attack at the Brussels airport tragically reminded us.

Back in 2001, the European Union adopted a uniform set of rules and procedures for protecting the areas of any airport behind security checkpoints. But the methods for safeguarding airport areas accessible to the general public — like the one in Brussels where Islamist terrorists killed 17 and wounded 81 people — are established at a national level and therefore vary among member states.

Mr. Gilles accused the Belgian capital’s airport of placing an excessive focus on economic considerations; he said that a request made last December to install a security check outside the entrance to the airport terminal had been rebuffed because of its expense. And, in fact, no other European Union country’s airport has such a security measure.

Which makes many of Europe’s airports — and American ones — inviting targets for terrorist attacks, R”l. Metal detectors scan travelers as they pass into restricted areas, and their hand luggage, shoes and outer clothing are scrutinized. But those efforts’ aim is to detect bombs or weapons that might be smuggled onto planes, not at securing the airports themselves. In airport-speak, the measures cover “airside” not “landside” security, leaving vulnerabilities in the public areas where passengers check in and check their luggage.

Many Europeans might be loath to look toward Israel for advice about securing their airports. (Americans are likely more ready to learn from Israel.) But experiencing terrorism first-hand, as has Europe, has a way of making the unthinkable not just thinkable but prudent.

It is widely recognized that Israel’s security at Ben Gurion (formerly Lod) airport is the best in the world. Needless to say, the true protection there is provided by a non-mortal Security Provider. But the hishtadlus taken by Israel Airports Authority properly takes all humanly controllable factors into account.

Visitors arriving at the airport, whether by car or on foot, can access the facility using only one of two entrances, each with armed checkpoints.

All incoming traffic is screened by mounted cameras, and license plate numbers of every car entering the airport are photographed, and the numbers checked against an Israeli police database. If a license proves to be that of a stolen car or registered to a person on a blacklist, an alarm is sounded and the vehicle is immediately inspected. Drivers and passengers may be subjected to body searches, and trained sniffer dogs may be employed to search for explosives.

Then, as every visitor to Israel knows, once in the terminal, passengers are personally screened — or “profiled” — by highly trained security personnel. Documents are checked and personal questions asked. The result of that screening determines the degree of thoroughness with which a passenger’s luggage is then checked.

An essential difference, moreover, between Israel’s airport security system and the systems of other airports is the single, unified control system in place at Ben Gurion. There is no hodgepodge of agencies and police departments, and thus none of the communication and coordination lapses that it can yield.

It’s unfortunate but true that Western countries will be reluctant to use “profiling” of passengers as a security tool. And the thorough observation and vetting of all vehicles entering airports will require a tremendous amount of resources, and perhaps even require the redesign of some airports. What is more, the addition of any new layers of security is likely to make air travel even more vexing than it already is.

But, at the very least, the establishment of a centralized and fully coordinated security authority at every European and American airport is an idea whose time has clearly come.