Airport security in an age of terrorism


  • Terrorists and other criminals often betray their intentions by exhibiting erratic body language that marks them out from others.
  • A number of behavioural identification schemes have been put in place in Western airports and mass transit stations to try and spot would-be terrorists before they get the chance to board aircraft.
  • Such schemes need to be introduced alongside other more technological programmes, in order to build a layered approach to security.

The alleged plot to blow up US-bound planes from the UK has forced Western nations to decide what can realistically be done to secure travel. The discovery and interception of the alleged bomb plot was a reminder that while intelligence capabilities have improved, airport security systems need a drastic overhaul to match present day challenges.

It has been suggested that despite improvements added after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the US, airport security measures have not gone far enough. The key question is: what is being done in the aftermath of the London airports scare?

One of the most contentious changes has been the subject of passenger profiling. Identifying potential terrorists, rather than detecting weapons, has become the focus of the latest security measures being taken by major airports in the US and UK.

Raphael Ron, former director of security at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, pointed out the main weakness of technology as a means of combating terrorism. He said: "Technology can only do what we tell it to do. We are limited in being able to give instructions to a machine. The machine can only detect things and nothing else. As one saw with the alleged London plot, the machines used today are unable to detect liquid explosives. If the alleged terrorists would have reached the airport the probability of them succeeding would have been very high."

Ron, now chief executive officer of New Age Security Solutions in Washington DC and also a consultant at Boston's Logan Airport, said that profiling has become a dirty word in the US, but only because it has not been used properly.

Israeli-style profiling first came to the US after 11 September 2001, when Boston's Logan International Airport hired Ron's company as security consultants.

Israeli methods

At Ben Gurion International Airport, profiling can take from 90 seconds to 30 minutes and is conducted by a well-paid cadre of university students who receive special training and have flawless military records. They examine documents, ask probing questions, such as "do you read Hebrew" or "whom did you visit" and can often verify information by phone immediately.

Travellers might be stopped four times by various security officers questioning them about where they were born, where they stayed and the names of any new friends they made. Officers might flip through a travel diary or make an international phone call for corroboration. El Al Israel Airlines uses its own security agents and scanning machines at airports in the US and Europe.

Although profiling has come under fire from civil rights groups in Israel, Ron said it is worthwhile. In 1986, for example, Israeli profilers targeted a pregnant young Irish woman whose Palestinian fiancé, it turned out, had hidden plastic explosives and a detonator in one of her suitcases.

Passengers who fly regularly to Israel from the US on El Al are carefully scrutinised by security agents at John F Kennedy International Airport in New York. No one is exempt from the checks and elderly people are just as eligible for scrutiny as young single male travellers.

The future

Such scrutiny may no longer be limited to Israel. Following the arrests over the alleged plot in the UK, El Al, the airline known for intensive passenger screening, is fast becoming a model for Western and European aviation authorities. Officials say they plan to share more passenger data among their allies.

Special teams of security officers are now being trained to monitor passenger behaviour at airports in a new attempt to combat terrorism. These officers will patrol terminals to monitor the gestures, conversations and facial expressions of passengers. Among their aims will be to spot those who may be concealing fear or anxiety. People who seem to be acting suspiciously will be taken in for questioning and prevented from flying if their answers fail to satisfy the security officers.

There is even a possibility that one day, passengers flying from Heathrow and Gatwick could even face a lie-detector test before they board planes. British officers have studied the techniques in the US, where behaviour-detection squads are already deployed at airports.

New systems for the West

Since the announcement of the alleged bomb plot, serious attention has been given to a system known as behaviour pattern recognition (BPR). Israeli officials have employed a version of the technique for years to protect air travellers against terrorists. Ben Gurion has had no major terrorist incident in over 30 years.

Because of the size and scale of the major UK and US airports, it would be impossible in terms of time, cost and the legal and cultural issues, to interview every single passenger. As such, Ron adapted the BPR programme for the US.

Ron was hired by Logan International Airport to train their state troopers in BPR. Its goal is to detect suspicious behaviour and respond to it by conducting interviews with selected individuals who have been singled out because of their behaviour. Air marshals, passenger screeners and state police stationed there have undergone special training to look for signs that could indicate a terrorist plot.

At the time BPR was being introduced to Logan Airport, the Transport Security Administration (TSA) - the agency set up in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, which is responsible for security of airports, mass transit systems and roads - initially failed to show much interest in the scheme. However, when a local federal security director recognised the value of the programme, a new version was developed, known as Screening Passengers by Observation Technique (SPOT).

The main difference between the two systems is that SPOT uses uniformed TSA screeners only, while BPR uses TSA screeners, law enforcement officers and airport employees on a lower level. In addition, SPOT is used only at checkpoints, as opposed to BPR, which covers all airport facilities.

Trained teams watch travellers in security lines and elsewhere. They look for obvious signs, such as wearing a heavy coat on a hot day, as well as vocal timbre, gestures and tiny facial movements, which might reveal that someone is trying to disguise an emotion.

Other methods of security

Logan also adopted Ben Gurion's system of multi-layered security. Roadblocks for random vehicle checks are set up on routes leading to the airport. Specially trained dog handlers and officers armed with automatic weapons patrol the terminals, whose exteriors are strengthened with thicker doors and shatterproof glass. Israel's main airport developed its multi-layered system after concluding that no single technology is guaranteed to stop a terrorist; Logan decided to follow suit.

This is not to say that new technologies are not embraced. Closed-circuit televisions are being installed at most security checkpoints. Facial recognition technology is being tested along with document verification technology, which detects tampering.

Ron explained that the multi-layered security approach does not impede passenger progress and causes little in the way of delays as it starts from the moment the passenger enters the periphery of the airport until check-in. In the system used both in the US and Israel, the first layer of security is data analysis, compiled when the flight is booked. Information on the passenger is accessible before arrival at the airport.

The second layer is at the airport's security checkpoints. A novice terrorist may have a harder time overcoming behavioural screening, as opposed to the mechanical screening for possible weapons. Current electronic gates will not pick up liquid explosives, which are alleged to have been planned for the British plot, whereas a terrorist's ability to prepare in advance for dealing with security officials who will be questioning him is doubtful. So far, potential terrorists who have attempted to penetrate the Israeli system have failed.

Despite concerns about possible flaws in the system, such as criminals disguising their intentions, Kip Hawley, Director of the Transport Security Administration, said: "There are infinite ways to find things to use as weapons and infinite ways to hide them, but if you can identify the individual, it is a far better way to find the threat."

Chief Executive Officer Thomas Kinton Jr, of the Massachusetts Port Authority, a public organisation tasked with developing and managing transportation infrastructure in Massachusetts and New England, said: "At Logan International we intend to stay on the cutting edge by constantly working to improve the performance and co-ordination of those security agencies charged with the protection of the travelling public. We have hosted a number of pilot projects run by the Transportation Security Administration for replication across the nation's transportation system. Each day, we have to be right all the time and those people trying to hurt us only have to be right once."

As a result of its success, BPR is now being introduced to other major airports in the US, including San Francisco and Minneapolis. Recently, a major BPR awareness programme for airport employees was launched at Miami Airport. Some 35,000 employees will eventually participate to introduce a security-orientated culture at the airport.

The British Airports Authority hired New Age Security Solutions to introduce the system on the Heathrow Express. Staff receive special training in a two-day programme for spotting terrorists, learning to observe body language and notice small movements of lips, eyebrows and the nose, and to detect potential illegal immigrants and baggage thieves. British Aircrafts Authority, which operates the service, said the results have been so successful it was considering training all frontline staff at its seven airports, including 6,000 employees at security checkpoints.

Ron confirmed that the programme is being extended across the UK. The programme is currently in operation at Glasgow Airport and Ron is in discussions about extending the programme to Heathrow and other BAA airports. At this stage it is still to be decided whether the transport division of the Metropolitan Police will participate.

Joe Charlaff is a freelance journalist who specialises in homeland security issues




Explore our related content