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Sunday, 03 July 2016

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Airport security

The triple suicide attack on Istanbul's main international airport, from which a Turkish Airlines flight to Colombo was to take off a few hours afterwards, is a stark reminder that terrorist groups are again aiming at "soft targets" which are not heavily guarded civilian facilities.

We are no strangers to attacks on airports - the LTTE attacked the Bandaranaike International Airport 16 years ago causing a massive amount of destruction. Fortunately, there was minimal loss of life on that occasion unlike in Istanbul where more than 40 people have died.

This is indeed not the only occasion in recent memory when airports have been attacked.

Airports in Rome and Vienna were attacked in 1985. An explosion at a check-in-area of Shanghai's main international airport injured four people last month. In March this year, 16 people were killed in two suicide bombings as bombs ripped through check-in counters at Brussels Airport. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the attack. A subsequent explosion at a Brussels subway station killed 16 more people.

Bomb

In December last year, a suicide car bomb attack killed at least one civilians near the eastern entrance of the Kabul international airport. Another 13 civilians were wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Two explosives were defused at Cairo International Airport on February 3, 2015. Officials say one bomb was planted in the arrival hall of the terminal hosting EgyptAir. Another was planted near a police patrol location in the airport's parking lot. On July 18, 2012, a bomb exploded on a bus carrying Israeli tourists at the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria, killing five of the tourists, the Bulgarian bus driver and the suicide bomber. On January 24, 2011 a suicide bomber blew himself up in the international arrivals area of Moscow's Domodedovo airport, killing 37 people and wounding 180 others.

These statistics do not include attacks on aircraft by terrorists through the use of bombs placed in the aircraft itself or by using ground-based missiles.

Sadly, the Istanbul attack proves that lessons have still not been learnt, despite repeated attacks on airports by various global terror groups. I have been to many international airports where my identity or my baggage were not checked right up to the check-in counters, which is normally some distance away from the entrance door.

Transit

Just a few days ago, I was at a major international transit hub where my check-in luggage was not checked at all physically or by using a scanner.

I am certain that the authorities must be checking the bags before actually loading them onto the plane, but why not check the bags in the presence of the passengers? Then it is rather easy to verify the contents and to catch the culprits if an explosive device or even contraband is detected. This lax attitude towards checked-in baggage makes a mockery of the rather intense search of carry-on baggage, shoes, wallets, watches and belts moments before boarding commences.

It is somewhat unnerving when you can walk all the way up to the counters without anyone asking who you are. In fact, the lack of security measures in the area before the passenger terminals (the so-called landside space) is one of the main security loopholes at many airports- this was clearly the case at Istanbul here the terrorists could be seen walking through the landside foyer on CCTV footage before exploding their suicide belts.

Model

The Bandaranaike International Airport, Colombo, on the other hand, is a model of how things should be security-wise. No one can go in to the passenger terminal without a passport/ticket and ticketed entry pass and those who go in after that initial check are usually body searched and ALL their baggage are sent through a scanner before they actually enter the passenger terminal. The bags are checked again at the terminal itself, which is really reassuring despite the minor hassle caused.

All carry-on luggage is checked again before boarding the aircraft at the relevant gate itself, instead of at a central point. This is more convenient for both passengers and the security staff, who have more time to check bags by hand should the need arise.

It also prevents huge queues as passengers are compartmentalised by flight number and departure gate. One wonders why other major airports, most of which have far bigger resources at their command, cannot implement the same methods to ensure better security of all concerned. There should not be any compromises on security - a bit of sacrifice is called for to ensure the safety and security of passengers. We hope that security measures at Colombo's upcoming new terminals would be even stricter. The renovated airport should also be equipped with the latest full body scanners and other new safety equipment.

"This tragedy in Istanbul and the one in Brussels earlier this year show that there is a growing challenge for governments to keep people safe in the landside parts of the airport," Tony Tyler, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said. "Moving people 'air-side' more quickly can help to mitigate risk."

Another option is to have a separate body for security at all passenger terminals (airport, seaport, bus and train terminals). The best example for such a body is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) of the USA, which was set up in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack of 2001.

The TSA introduced many new safety measures which have since been adopted worldwide. While the TSA has not been 100 percent foolproof (A machete-wielding man attacked TSA officers at New Orleans' international airport in March 2015 and was shot and killed), it has no doubt ensured better security at US airports. The deployment of Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response (VIPR) teams comprising heavily armed police officers has also raised the security profile of many airports. Many other countries are contemplating the TSA model for airport and train station security.

But the best long-term solution is to destroy terrorism itself. Only then will the world be able to breathe a little easier even though the need for airport security will not go away. Airport lobby group ACI's Director-General Olivier Jankovec says what happened in Istanbul "shows us that the real challenge now is to stop terrorists before they ever reach an airport or any other public space.

Better intelligence and more effective information exchange and cooperation between the competent public authorities needs to become the highest priority." This is one of the best responses we have seen so far on the subject of airport security, which must now be a priority for all Governments and airport operators (public and private) the world over.

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