Target: Airport

July 6, 2016

I WAS AFRAID OF THIS. In the aftermath of the recent bloody attacks at the terminals in Brussels and Istanbul, we’re hearing calls for tighter airport security.

First, a little history. Although airplanes themselves are historically the choicest target, attacks inside terminals are nothing new. For instance:

In 1972, the Japanese Red Army murdered 26 people in the arrivals lounge at Israel’s Lod Airport (today’s Ben Gurion International).

In 1985, the Abu Nidal group killed 20 in a pair of coordinated ticket counter assaults at Vienna and Rome.

In 2002, a gunman shot three people near the El Al airlines ticket counter at LAX.

And most recently, in January, 2011, a suicide bomber at Moscow’s busy Domodedovo airport killed 35 people.

“Aviation security experts have been warning” read an Associated Press story after the Moscow attack, “that the crowds at many airports present tempting targets to suicide bombers. Arrivals halls are usually open to anyone.”

Now, after Brussels and Istanbul, we’re hearing this again. The implication is that our airports aren’t yet secure enough, and that only more barricades, checkpoints, cameras, and armed guards will make them so. There’s talk from security experts asking if perhaps terminals need to be closed off to everybody except ticketed passengers and employees, with security checkpoints moved literally onto the sidewalk.

This is something I worried about years ago, when I was a columnist for Salon. “Just wait,” I wrote, “until the next big attack takes place at the check-in counter or at baggage claim. They’ll be turning our airports into fortresses.”

As, if by moving the fences, they can’t get us. The only thing moving security curbside would actually do, of course, is shift the perimeter — and the busy choke point of passengers — to a new location. This means nothing to an attacker, whose so-called “soft target” has simply been relocated from one spot to another, no less convenient one. But it would mean immense amounts of hassle for everybody else. No checkpoint is going to stop a terrorist hellbent on destruction.

Indeed, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, the third-busiest in Europe, already had secondary checkpoints in place, at the entrance of the international departure hall. It made no difference.

Another supposedly helpful tactic is to flood the terminal with soldiers or policemen. At U.S. airports nowadays we see an increasing number of police and National Guard troops parading around with automatic weapons. This has always baffled me. What sort of deterrent is this intended to be? I realize that one of the attackers in Istanbul was tackled by a policeman, but do all these guns and uniforms really matter to a suicide bomber armed with explosives?

The constant, anything-goes ramping up of security is precisely the wrong response. It’s reactionary in the purest sense, and it plays directly into the terrorist’s strategy — a strategy that encourages a response that is based on fear instead rather reason, and that is ultimately self-defeating.

The reality is, we can never make our airports, or any other crowded places, impervious to attack. And while maybe some people wouldn’t mind living in a society in which every terminal, shopping mall, sports venue and subway station has been militarized and strung with surveillance equipment, count me among those who would.


Related Stories:

Terminal Madness. What is Airport Security?
The United States of Fear and Panic

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33 Responses to “Target: Airport”
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  1. Ram Todatry says:

    This already happens at all airports in India – whether at International or Domestic, departure and/or arrival halls. No one other than ticketed passengers can enter the departure halls, and the arrival halls are barricaded for up to a certain distance. Enjoy your next visit to India.

  2. Rog W says:

    I couldn’t agree more with Patrick’s analysis.

  3. John Porter says:

    I’d argue that moving the security checkpoint out to the curb might even make things EASIER for terrorists, since they could just drive up and detonate a car bomb, which would likely be larger than one carried within a piece of luggage.

  4. Maggie Pappas says:

    After terrorist crises, newscasts emphasize ‘failure to prevent’such attacks,calling for increased security. What’s forgotten is our airports are our gracious front doors to business and tourism–intrinsic symbols of cities’ openness to commerce, history, food, travel, shopping and play. So what do we say about a city’s welcome when its airport is over staffed with guards carrying sub machine guns, lines relegated to outdoor weather to stop the unstoppable? We’re saying that by trying to save lives, our fears trump life itself.

    I remember a layover in O’Hare a few years ago, noting at least 20 TSA guards congregated in one area, catching up on their email, chatting, laughing, drinking their lattes. I remember asking myself what that tableau signified. Safety and security? Hardly. Redundancy and waste of taxpayer dollars? You bet. And glancing in the opposite direction–multiple carts of over sized bags of golf clubs and the like, sitting on carts in an empty unguarded area waiting for some staffer to push them to the cargo bay. Any radicalized custodian could have easily placed any kind of device inside any of those pre- cleared bags–those 20 TSA guards would never have noticed. There’s no safety in numbers of guards, just in their quality.

    Give me a team of expertly trained, sharp-eyed El-Al undercover agents casing the crowds over billions spent on misery inducing re-engineering any day. Bargain cost, remarkable success rate, zero inconvenience to travelers.

  5. Olivier says:

    I agree that moving the airport crowds around won’t make one iota of difference. But why not try to shrink the crowds? The options exist already: the Trusted Traveler program for the security checkpoints, online checking and sending your luggage in advance for the check-in counters and so on but they are underused. There is thus room for thinning the crowds by making the flow of people more fluid. This is a logistics issue.

  6. Josh says:

    Yes. I wrote much the same in the Calif. Planning & Development Report after the LAX shootings a few years ago. Living in public always entails some risk. The rewards — cultural, economic, logistical, and social — vastly outweigh those risks.

    If it’s not untoward to post my own link:

  7. Jim Houghton says:

    The best defense is to knock off the offense — stop invading other people’s countries. Stop being the World’s Largest Ineffectual but Deadly Military.

  8. Kathy says:

    I entirely agree that what we currently have in the US is security theater, and that terrorist attacks are stopped by intelligence work. However, I am not an advocate of doing away with security altogether. In my experience airports in India and Pakistan do not allow you into the terminal building unless you are a ticketed passenger, and unless your flight will leave in the next two to three hours. All baggage goes through X-ray and all passengers through metal detectors at the entrance. I would be happy to swap the current TSA setup for that.

  9. greenlight says:

    Easy – just move the security checkpoints to outside everyone’s front door. Can’t leave home without an x-ray, naked body scan and pat down

  10. DorkRothko says:

    Your last paragraph is important, and it’s shocking (OK, it’s not really) that this is a point so easily missed in all of the hot takes required to fill the airwaves after anything bad like this happens. Of course there’s something symbolic about airplanes and airports that make them a desirable target for terrorists, but as the attacks in Paris showed, today’s terrorist has an open mind when it comes to targets. The idea of “soft targets” is silly. It is/we are all “soft,” because we live in an open society. If a terrorist really wants to strike an airport, they will, regardless of where the ultimate security boundary is. But they’re just as likely to target a sports stadium, mall, concert, hotel, college building, Chik Fil-A restaurant, bus depot, casino, government office, and on and on. (Though, neither should we forget the relative unlikelihood of any such attack.) As you’ve said many times before, the failure in Belgium was not that the airport or the subway system was not secure enough…the failure occurred in the months before, in the police and intelligence communities (and even the larger community), which dropped the ball in various, diverse ways.

    • Jim Houghton says:

      What makes airports especially good targets is that everyone is carrying luggage. You walk into a ChickFil-A with a fat rolling suitcase and you’re going to attract some attention. Maybe not enough, but more than you would at an airport.

  11. Bernouilli says:

    In your opinion, how long would it take for the airport to reopen, once the forensics are done with their job? I guess what i’m asking is, what does it take to make people fly? I assume you’re familiar with BRU, it’s a relatively small airport, compared to Paris, London, JFK, etc. In my mind it’s about the size of the international terminal at SFO.
    From what i can tell, access to both terminals at BRU are blocked because of the location of the explosions, so there’s that. I know the airport well (I’m Belgian), and looking at it from a project engineer perspective, it’s going to be quite a challenge to have it up and running very quickly. Which will need to happen because, you know, economics and all that..

  12. Alex says:

    How about we adopt the Israeli security model? There hasn’t been a major incident at Ben Gurion since the one in 1972 you mention above. They reserve the body scanners and patdowns only for secondary screening, and yes, they do employ racial profiling but the fact is it works. I’d instruct the PC whiners to get over it.

    Another step would be to avoid taking in thousands of refugees from ISIS-controlled areas whom we can’t adequately vet, like France and Brussels have. You know, seeing as how well it has worked out for them…

    • James says:

      I agree — since domestic terrorism by the right-wing has caused more death and destruction in the last decade in his country, conservatives, bigots, and religious fundamentalists are all banned from flights taking off or landing in the US.

    • John O'D says:

      The perpetrators of Paris and Brussels (and London in 2005) were not refugees, but citizens of the countries they attacked. The refugees are fleeing from Daesh and other terrorist groups and regimes.

      If there is a weakness in airport security, it is that it is overwhelmingly designed to prevent bombs getting onto aircraft. The current pattern of attacks is to go for crowded areas to cause maximum casualties and outrage – football stadiums, theatres, railway stations, and now an airport.

    • DorkRothko says:

      It’s naive to imagine profiling isn’t happening (hint: computers). It’s not being done by the TSA airport staff, who clearly are not qualified to do anything of the sort.

      Your other point is ridiculous. The attacks in Europe weren’t committed by refugees, but citizens…second-generation children of previous immigrants. Europe is not America. You’ll have to let me know where the simmering, poverty-stricken Muslim neighborhoods are in the US.

    • Patrick says:

      Emulating the Israeli “model” wouldn’t be that easy. And remember that Israel is a tiny country with a single international airport that supports only a limited number of flights. Of course they’re going to be better at security: it’s much simpler for them. Here’s an article I wrote for Salon a number of years ago about security at Ben Gurion:

  13. Kristina Creek says:

    A New York Times article makes many of the same points:

    In general, I agree with you. As much time as I spend traveling, I tend to see these ‘security’ measures as stop-gaps to give an appearance of increased safety, while in actuality they change very little. And moving the initial checkpoint to outside the airport would be ridiculous. The target just moves… and now we have to stand in line in the cold.

  14. seashell says:

    Hoo boy, I see new stories added to the Global Hysteria Hall of Shame forthcoming. Hide your chopsticks, Patrick.

    One thing I don’t get is why require so much more security for airport terminals than subway stations? Both have been targeted and both have the requisite large crowded spaces, yet there’s not so much as a metal detector in subway stations, except in Moscow. We can bring one or more each of spoons, knives and forks on the subway, but the pilot’s fork is confiscated by TSA, because what can possibly be more dangerous than a pilot with a fork?

    I really don’t get it.

    • greenlight says:

      When I was in Beijng they also X-rayed everyones bags on the subway. The X-ray staff at the stop near my hotel was a very cold-looking girl who had her face firmly planted in her mobile phone

  15. Tod Davis says:

    I’m traveling to the USA (from Australia) in September. Unless something major happens between now and then my biggest concerns are firstly getting shot/robbed on the street and secondly the security become so tight that it makes travel impossible

  16. Alan says:

    I am afraid you are flying into too strong a headwind here. You will run out of fuel far short of the destination and the blowhards have infinite energy.

    The thing you are afraid will happen has in fact already happened and what we have in fact is security theater instead of actual security. For the most part. The airport security we have is not exactly worthless but it could be made much better without the politics involved.

    Israel, for all its other faults, has managed to form a partnership with civilians which keeps terrorist incidents to a minimum in spite of the intense motivation and numbers of the would-be terrorists dedicated to Israel’s destruction. What they do seems to be working so why can’t we do something similar?

  17. Kc says:

    So, just to clarify- you advocate for doing nothing. Maybe removing security, because it’s useless anyway-?

  18. nycman says:

    Move the checkpoint way out, say to your house or whereever you are departing from. A TSA agent will personally meet you at your house, search you and your bags, and put you in a secure vehicle, perhaps similar to the back of a police cruiser. You will then be driven directly to your aircraft. Perhaps a final check prior to boarding, to make sure you’re not trying to sneak in any water.

  19. Speed says:

    The US DOT reported 696.2 million domestic and 102.2 million international airline passengers (both records) in 2015. There were no terrorist attacks at US airports in 2015.

    According to Wikipedia, there were 32,675 US motor vehicle deaths in 2014 — right next to measles on the CDC’s list of leading causes of death.

    The CDC reports 2.1 million emergency room visits for assault in 2011 and 11,208 firearm homicides (2013).

    Today’s attack in Brussels was a terrible thing but compared to the risks we all face each and every day that we can get out of bed, they were very minor events. It is their extraordinary uncommonness that makes them headline news.

  20. Todd Curtis says:

    In the US, there is an unusual set of circumstances that actually allows passengers, and anyone else for that matter, to legally bring weapons, including firearms and ammunition into a passenger terminal. The prohibition against weapons in the terminal only applies to the area beyond the security screeners. Otherwise, local laws apply to other parts of the terminal, and in most parts of the US, that means weapons may be legally carried in those parts of the terminal. In addition, passengers who want to fly with firearms and certain kinds of ammunition can do so legally in many cases if it is in checked baggage. That passenger must check it in, typically at the same check in counter as everyone else. This means that in a typical US airport, there is no telling how many people in the terminal may be legally carrying both firearms and ammunition. Any proposal to change the current set of laws and regulations in order to ban such items from the terminal will likely meet with fierce and unyielding opposition from a wide range of politicians and interest groups. The bottom line is that the only thing that will prevent someone from turning an airport terminal into a shooting gallery is a lack of desire to make it happen.

    • Speed says:

      Todd Curtis wrote, “The bottom line is that the only thing that will prevent someone from turning an airport terminal into a shooting gallery is a lack of desire to make it happen.”

      And to date, that has worked perfectly in the US. Saying that firearms and ammunition are prohibited in the passenger terminal won’t improve safety.

  21. christiane says:

    Hi Patrick,

    a so far quiet reader of your blog, and a very thankful one at that – I’m a nervous flyer and find your posts and explanations very assuring!

    I do tend to agree with what you wrote here (I’m from Berlin and haven’t been to the US in years, so don’t know about airport security there from my own experience), but I also think that panic and destruction – the possibility of a fire, collapsing structures could possibly pose a higher risk than when you’re outside. Just a thought.

    I know that overall we cannot avoid these things altogether, unfortunately, and more controls and military are something that I won’t be a fan of, either. A dilemma.

    Keep up the good stuff and safe travels!