September 2016 marked 15 years since the attacks of September 11, 2001. Amid the media coverage, a central question emerged: how had the world changed in the interim, and what had been done to lower the risk of such an attack being repeated in the future?

A changing security environment

There can be no doubt that airport security has moved on since 2001. During the past 15 years, we have seen the introduction of stringent baggage restrictions, full-body scanners, and a litany of new regulations from bodies like the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

However, with threats continuing to evolve, it is important that security strategies also adapt to such challenges. The real question is how security providers can remain one step ahead: that is, foiling new threats as they arise, rather than simply closing the security gaps of the past.

As recent attacks have demonstrated, there is no room for complacency. In March 2016, 17 people died in a suicide bombing at Brussels Zaventem Airport; the attack took place in the check-in area, an unsecured section of the airport with unrestricted access. Despite all that has been undertaken to ensure in-flight security, airports have been labelled a “soft target”.

It isn’t hard to find further examples. In June 2016, a gun and bomb attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport killed 41 people and injured 239. This, too, raised questions about public access to airports: while the airport in question employed X-ray scanners at the entrance to the terminal, security checks in the car park were limited. Then there was the Moscow Airport attack in 2011, in which 38 people perished in the arrivals area.  

Factor in the continued threats to planes (underlined by the EgyptAir hijacking in March), and it is clear that security remains a grave concern throughout the aviation sector.

At Perth Airport – the fourth busiest in Australia – these issues are never far from operators’ minds. As CEO Kevin Brown explains, personnel are trained to keep an eagle eye on potential vulnerabilities.

In response to a challenging security landscape, the Australian Government takes a risk-based, intelligence-driven approach to aviation security.

“Perth Airport delivers rigorous security training and awareness to its team members, has comprehensive physical and technical security measures in place, and maintains a highly evolved security culture,” he says. “In response to a challenging security landscape, the Australian Government takes a risk-based, intelligence-driven approach to aviation security.”

Earlier this year, in the wake of the Brussels attacks, Australia’s airports stepped up their security measures. Police presence was increased, and Border Force personnel postponed their planned strike action.

“Security measures at these airports are multilayered and may involve armed mobile, canine and foot patrols, static guarding, as well as specialist-response armed capability,” a spokesperson for the Australian Federal Police told at the time. “A range of technical measures such as extensive CCTV also support these security measures.”

According to counterterrorism expert Clark Jones, who spoke to in July, airports in Australia are “very secure” relative to those elsewhere.

“Our police and intelligence capabilities are far more sophisticated than those in many other countries,” he said. “We have international cooperation arrangements that are very strong, and authorities very much have their finger on the pulse in relation to that.”

All this said, the country’s terrorism threat level remains at “probable”. In effect, this means that individuals or groups have developed both the intent and the capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia, and it is vital that operators are held to the highest standards.

Australia’s aviation environment is regulated through the Aviation Transport Security Regulations (2005) and the Aviation Transport Security Act (2004). These measures, which are based on standards set out by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), attempt to safeguard against “unlawful interference with aviation”. 

Improving technology

Since 2006, airports around the world have maintained liquid, aerosol and gel (LAG) restrictions, Australia being no exception. While domestic flights are not subject to these restrictions, international passengers are barred from carrying liquid containers of more than 100ml in their hand luggage.

Passengers, and their baggage, may also be tested for traces of explosives using explosive trace detection equipment. In order to guard against profiling, individuals are randomly selected for this purpose using an electronic randomiser; they may also be chosen to pass through a body scanner.

“Being a security-controlled airport, all passengers and visitors passing through to secure areas, and their bags, are screened for prohibited items and weapons,” explains Brown. “In mid-2012, the Australian Government deployed micro-millimetre body scanners at all major Australian airports. These scanners detect non-metallic items and explosives concealed on a person quicklyand reliably.”

These scanners are less controversial than the X-ray body scanners (also known as “backscatter” machines) that were notoriously removed from airports in 2013. While X-ray body scanners could accurately detect hidden items, there were concerns about heightened cancer risk due to ionising radiation.

The increase in risk was tiny – according to David Brenner, the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Colombia University Medical Center, each person had a one-in-ten-million chance of developing cancer as a result of a backscatter scan; however, considering the number of people scanned, this scaled up to around 100 cases a year. There were also privacy concerns, in that the X-rays showed a degree of anatomical detail.

The newer scanners not only eliminate such radiation concerns, but they are also less intrusive in that they project possible hidden items on to a generic body.

“All body scanners in Australia use non-ionising millimetre-wave technology,” says Brown. “Passengers being scanned by millimetre-wave body scanners are exposed to low levels of electromagnetic energy. These levels are comparable to passive exposure to a mobile phone used several metres away.”

During the past 12 months, Perth Airport has introduced three new passenger-screening points to enhance its existing facilities. These have helped expedite security checks, which can be an immense source of frustration: take the widely reported delays in US airports this summer, which stretched to three hours in some cases, and even led to airport chiefs deploying clowns in an effort to lighten the mood.

“Our additional screening facilities are designed to maintain the highest level of security by making use of tracking sensors, sophisticated screening technology and equipment monitoring to expedite the screening process,” explains Brown.

Perth Airport also stations customer service representatives at key points, to assist passengers with new and existing security requirements. Because tighter security, as a general rule, translates to increased hassle for passengers, it is important that the quality of their experience is taken into account.

International collaboration

Of course, any given airport is limited in terms of what it can achieve by itself. There are currently a number of international projects under way to improve security screening, driven by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airports Council International (ACI).

“Australian Airports, including Perth Airport, contribute to, and participate in, these projects,” says Brown. “The most significant of these projects is ‘Smart Security’ – a project focused on strengthening security, increasing operational efficiency and improving the passenger experience.”

Formerly known as “Checkpoint of the Future”, Smart Security works on the basis that today’s screening model is not sustainable. With air travel projected to grow, and security threats all but certain to evolve, the project seeks to create “a continuous journey from curb to airside, where passengers proceed through security with minimal inconvenience, where security resources are allocated based on risk, and where airport facilities can be optimised.”

While this is a long-term goal, many of its constituent elements are already available, and have been trialled in airports such as Amsterdam Schiphol, Geneva, London Gatwick, London Heathrow and Melbourne. These include adaptable, risk-based screening capabilities; the use of biometrics for passenger differentiation; and new passenger processing systems.

Our additional screening facilities are designed to maintain the highest level of security by making use of tracking sensors, sophisticated screening technology and equipment monitoring.

There are various other measures in place that could strengthen security still further. At London Heathrow, the new terminals leave a 30m gap between the road and the airport building – a precaution designed to minimise the impact of car bombs. The UK Government has also issued guidance around terminal design, such as glass that stays in its frame following a blast.

Perhaps most excitingly, new equipment is being trialled in the UK and the US that would enable airports to ease their LAG restrictions. The new scanners, based on computed tomography (CT) technology, would capture detailed images of a passenger’s hand luggage and spare them from having to remove their liquids and laptops.

Enduring threats

Of course, there is no way to completely eliminate security threats: for instance, all the screening measures in the world would struggle to eliminate the so-called “trusted insider” threat, which many security experts have identified as a serious risk.

In his interview, Clarke Jones called tighter security “just a band-aid solution”, adding that “it doesn’t matter how much you secure an airport, people will find a way around the system”.

Nonetheless, while it may be impossible to terror-proof an airport entirely, it is clear that existing security measures do a great deal to improve safety. For the 13 million people who travel through Perth Airport annually, that is a reassuring fact to keep in mind.