I get the opportunity to travel a lot and this has afforded me an excellent view into how airports are run. But my perspective is not limited to their inner workings. In fact, from my office here in Montréal, I can see the O6L and 24R runways at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport.
This means that, every once in a while, I get to watch these feats of engineering and technology move through the air. I am then reminded of the incredible precision required to get so many planes safely through take-off and landing every day.
At the same time, I also know that any disruption on the airfield – no matter how small – can delay flights or threaten security.
Administrators and security directors are responsible for preventing unauthorised access for the whole of their environments: or, ‘from kerbside to airside’. This is an extremely complicated task and is growing even more so due to a range of ever-changing threats, aided by technological advancements.
As we know, passengers and their luggage are not the only types of possible intrusion. Consider the drone chaos at London Gatwick before Christmas and more recently disruptions at Heathrow, Newark Liberty, Dubai International Airport and Dublin Airport that caused widespread disruption to a variety of organisations and thousands of travellers.
The high costs of a breached perimeter
Of course, drones aren’t the only threat. My conversations with airport security personnel regularly come back to two recurring concerns: “How do we better protect our perimeter?” and “How do we address the insider threat?”
The current working theory that a former or current employee of London Gatwick may be responsible for the drone-related disruption is that it brings these two together. Over the three-day period, more than 1,000 flights and 120,000 passengers were affected while the airport itself lost an estimated £20 million in revenue.
Other associated businesses, like airlines, retailers, hotels and taxis, also suffered huge losses. Take easyJet as an example, the airline recently revealing that its resulting losses were in the region of £15 million.
This was all made worse from a PR perspective by the fact that all of this took place over the Christmas break, and with many families kept from going to their destinations, it became international news.
Prior to the events of December at Gatwick, drones had only entered the airport security conversation as a potential hazard – an accident waiting to happen as a result of irresponsible drone operators.
Gatwick has since illustrated what can happen when they’re used deliberately to cause chaos and potentially harm travellers and airport staff. Now that the consequences have been laid bare, airport security teams that don’t take effective precautions against drones in the future could risk irreparably damaging their organisation’s reputation.
In 2015, the Associated Press conducted an investigation into perimeter breaches at 31 of the US’s busiest airports. The investigation covered the years from January 2004 to January 2015 and found 268 instances of people breaching the outer limits of these airports.
It is important to note that none of these breaches involved terrorist activity. However, they are still hugely problematic and can cost airports and airlines handsomely. So, what can airports do to mitigate the impact or prevent these events from occurring in the future?
Securing an airport’s airside
Given the size of most of today’s airports, there is a lot of area to protect against unwanted intrusions. And, since no two airports are alike, it is difficult to find a one-size-fits-all solution to perimeter protection. A good place to start, however, is with a fence.
Airport security directors have to first ensure that their perimeter is protected from a physical perspective. Generally speaking, this requires fencing all the way around the airfield. This can be challenging when a perimeter is 20 to 30 kilometres long.
But, as we know, it is important to keep people, vehicles or animals from accidentally entering the airfield, as this can cause flight delays, which are both a scheduling nightmare and expensive.
Preventing accidental intrusions from occurring is just one part of airside security. As the AP investigation revealed, a fence can be surmounted and can’t, on its own, keep individuals from accessing an airfield with the intent of stealing baggage, equipment, technology or tampering with aircraft.
The UK government recently made it illegal to fly a drone within five kilometres of an airport, Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, claiming that the new regulations are designed to help keep the country’s airports secure and its skies safe.
The previous operating restriction, introduced in July last year, restricted drone flights above 400ft and within one kilometre of an airport boundary. But this left open the possibility of conflict with aircraft on final approach.
The British Airline Pilots’ Association (BALPA) has welcomed the development, head of flight safety, Dr Rob Hunter, remarking: “This increase is what we’ve been calling for in order to ensure there is a safe separation between commercial aircraft and legal drone operations.
“This, along with the introduction of suitable detection measures, represents a significant improvement to the safety of manned aircraft around airports.”
More new rules and regulations could further lower the rates of accidental intrusions, but an individual intent on breaking them will do so – unless appropriate tech is deployed as a counter measure.
An intrusion detection system that can alert personnel if or when a breach occurs and where the intruder is, is vital. Genetec’s offering to this aspect of perimeter security comes in the form of the Restricted Security Area (RSA) module.
The RSA is a multi-tech solution that combines radar, laser and video analytics, to provide accurate data when tracking a breach. RSA can geo-locate intruders or drones using collected data to help continuously track their live-location once they have crossed the perimeter or entered a restricted airspace.
These systems can also help address the challenges of false positive alarms. By correlating data, they can act as a filter to help ensure that only confirmed intruders have breached the perimeter.
Without this type of technology, security operators can become overwhelmed with false positive alarms, causing them to ignore alerts or turn off sensors. This, of course, defeats the purpose of having perimeter protection and runs the risk of leaving the airport vulnerable to incident or attack.
And, finally, when a breach does occur, systems need to be able to track intruders and provide operators with the information they required to manage and co-ordinate the response with ground staff.
Auto-tracking that tracks and displays intruders within the airfield can provide the intelligence necessary to ensure that correct procedures are followed and the right teams are sent out to investigate. After all, when security personnel can respond to an intrusion quickly and knowledgably, they are better able to minimise potential threats, reduce risks, and keep aircraft moving on time.
Airports are big businesses with a vast number of moving parts. They require co-ordinated planning that takes into account a wide variety of stakeholders. New technologies like drones mean that security systems must be adaptable and prepared to deal with a wide array of situations to ensure that planes run on time, passengers have a positive experience, and everyone is safe.