Should Airports Extend Their Security Perimeters? No.


Any time there’s a bombing like the one in Brussels earlier this week, the chorus of people suggesting knee-jerk reactions gets much louder. The explosions at the Brussels airport occurred before security, in the departure hall, and that has led to a lot of what may seem like rational thought at first. As USA Today, asked, should airports extend their security perimeters? In other words, should the ticketing area join the gates behind security? I’m with the experts quoted in that story. No.

Security Lines Outside the Terminal

You can see how people might reach this conclusion before really thinking it through. The terrorists blew themselves up just outside security? Let’s move security back a bit further. Problem solved. But that doesn’t solve the problem. It just moves it elsewhere.

The idea that security was important to have at US airports goes back to the good old days when people just wanted to hijack an airplane. But hijacking turned into bombings, and the government had to do something. It wasn’t until the 1970s that metal detectors and carry-on bag x-rays became mandatory. Then it was well into the 1980s before checked bag screening became a major concern. (Remember Pan Am 103? Yeah. That.)

You’d think setting up some basic security along those lines would be enough, but there’s a problem: terrorists love airplanes. Airplanes are a good way to kill a group of people with relative ease. And taking down an airplane was guaranteed to be an international incident since that’s the very nature of air travel. As flying has become safer, each fatality becomes more and more shocking. Terrorists love that kind of stuff.

Of course, after the elaborate plot to hijack and crash 4 airplanes into iconic buildings occurred in 2001, security efforts went crazy. We talked about this a bit on Monday; most of it is just theater. Still, it’s an entrenched part of society that is meant to protect a fairly unique thing in the world, flying machines that can not only be harmed but can also cause incredible harm in the wrong hands.

So if we now find that ticket counters are in danger (something that has been predicted for ages), then it might make sense to move the secure area back. But if you think about it for a minute, you’ll realize how wrong that is. While airplanes are unique in that they can be used as a weapon, airports can’t. They can’t be redirected into a skyscraper. Nor can they be hijacked to Cuba. They’re just buildings where a lot of people have to gather in order to do what they want to do.

If we were to extend the security checkpoint to be outside the building, then what? Everyone would have to gather outside that checkpoint just to go through security to get to the ticket counter. That creates the same opportunity outside the building that terrorists already have inside the building today. They can still target massive groups of people huddled in one place, so what’s the point? All it does is make the travel experience more of a hassle.

If we start adding security just to get to a ticket counter, then we have to think about all the other places that are nearly identical. The pre-security airport, where people stand around and transact, is a lot like subway and train stations (which were also a part of the Brussels attack), ferry terminals, movie theaters, shopping malls, bus stations, etc. Many of these places can be just as international as an airport, if that matters to a terrorist.

Do we need to install metal detectors in all of these places? Some will argue that we should. To me that just sounds like a terrible way to live. Countless hours will be wasted going through security while providing little in the way of protection. So what should we do?

Bombings aren’t infrequent events around the world. If you live in some parts of the Middle East or Africa, it’s a common concern. It used to be common in Western Europe as well, but the days of the IRA and ETA are over. That’s one reason why bombings in Western Europe become headline news in the US today while bombings in other places don’t.

It was less than a week before the Brussels attack that Ankara in Turkey was hit. That barely received a mention, but then again, it was the fifth attack in Turkey in the last 6 months. The Ivory Coast saw nearly 2 dozen people mowed down just a few days earlier. (The other more sinister reason is that people seem to care more when something happens to people who are more like themselves. When Americans see a bombing in Western Europe, it hits much closer to home.)

But we should be paying much closer attention to those places where bombing is more frequent to better understand how they handle security efforts there. Israel is obviously a great place to look since it is considered to be a more free country than others in the region, yet it has to have rigorous safety efforts.

You might say, “but the Tel Aviv airport has a security inspection long before anyone gets near the terminal.” That’s true, but it’s a relatively small airport in a very special situation. It’s not practical to do that in major international hubs. But we should listen to what some in Israel are saying about these attacks to learn the best way to help prevent them. The Jerusalem Post, for example, calls it a major intelligence failure.

There had apparently been chatter about an attack at the airport, and security should have been stepped up dramatically. Bring in a bunch of police if you expect something to happen. And do I mind temporary checkpoints before reaching a terminal in response to a specific threat? Not at all. We’ve seen that deployed previously and it makes sense. If there is a real threat, then absolutely step things up until that has passed. But just throwing up security barriers to trade an illusion of safety for a hugely inconvenient life just can’t be the right answer.

At least I hope not.

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29 comments on “Should Airports Extend Their Security Perimeters? No.

  1. Agreed. But the best way to potentially reduce this is to know the enemy, as Sun Tzu taught so long ago. Bin Laden and ISIS both put out statements saying they have done this in reaction to western governments being heavily involved militarily in the Middle East. Bombing and security theater have not helped and the bombing only makes it worse. Bin Laden said after 9/11 his goals were being met because the US was infringing on freedom here with TSA and NSA spying and bankrupting itself abroad with Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. I’d recommend anyone that cares Google Prof. Robert Pape at U Chicago who has demonstrated suicude terrorism is because of perceived occupations and not to impose Wahhabism.

  2. The terrorists have already taken away one of my favorite things to do. Prior to 9/11, I used to enjoy walking through the terminals, seeing where each plane at the gates was going, getting close ups of the aircraft, and most importantly, greeting friends and relatives as they disembarked. Al Qaeda took that away. Are we going to let ISIS take away our ability to walk through the pre security terminal without a ticket? I surely hope not.

    1. MarylandDavid, nah they just made it harder. But a fully refundable ticket on your least favorite airline, go past security, cancel your checkin and don’t get on the plane. Then ask for a refund.

        1. By the TSA? Unlikely. By the airline? Maybe.

          The requirement of having a ticket to get behind security achieves two things: reducing the number of people who go through security and being able to match names. (Although there still exists the ability to get around the name check thing with a stolen credit card or cash and faking a boarding pass.)

  3. I’m writing from Israel but, as you say, our airport is not huge. ? However I have flown many times from IST (Istanbul) which is huge and where security checks are mandatory for entry to the terminal. I have never noted long lines outside the building and the idea of protecting the visitors to the terminal from the outset makes sense to me if security checks are part of the game plan. Personally I’d prefer to take my chances and do away with all security since I think it’s an enormous industry with very little to show for itself.  And as you pointed out it does not exist in numerous other public places.

  4. This was primarily a failure of intelligence, and of neglecting security. Having a wider perimeter would not have helped.


    Some quotes:

    “The Belgian government was ordered to rectify its “deficient” border regime in an extensive list of recommendations issued by the European Council on February 29”

    “At Brussels Charleroi airport, which runs budget flights to Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey, untrained border officers were deployed to check passports, and mandatory daily briefings on new security threats did not take place.”

    etc etc

  5. I flew out of Moscow Domodedovo airport on the way back from visiting the in-laws and Russia did create the kind of pre-security clearing in direct response to the 2011 bombing of that airport’s baggage area. It wasn’t as thorough as the next security line and it was relatively painless, no line and no taking off shoes although lack of line may be have been because it was 6a. Nairobi has a similar set up although I don’t have as much confidence in their security because they let their terminal burn down and I had to fly out of a tent. Unrelated to airport security, I was searched each time before I went into the Westgate Mall but that didn’t stop four guys murdering some 67 people there a month after I left.

    I think though that airports should focus first on improving the procedures they already have in place. Last July, auditors (not explosives experts) were able to smuggle almost everything through our existing security and @ZO above confirms that this occurs in Belgium too.

  6. You didnt mention the bombing in Istanbul on Saturday. No one is trending Turkey on Facebook, or Twitter. Our capital is not flying the Turkish flag.

    1. He actually did…. “It was less than a week before the Brussels attack that Ankara in Turkey was hit. That barely received a mention, but then again, it was the fifth attack in Turkey in the last 6 months.”

  7. Istanbul has 2 security checks. One before entering the airport and another before the gates. I was surprise that there was not bottle neck entering the airport. It was a quick sweep for explosives and way less invasive than the TSA

  8. The goal of “terrorists” is to multiply what they do. They spend $50,000 on an attack, and we spend $50 billion in response. They attack a small group of people once, and we continually inconvenience a huge number in response in a manner making 1970s dystopian science fiction seem cheerful. They aren’t attacking aviation because of some inherent hostility to the industry, but because that is where we give by far the biggest return on their investment. If they could get that return in other places, they will and have.

    Making your house a fortress may prevent it from being robbed, but doesn’t make the neighbourhood any safer or help the neighbours. The correct response is to refuse to be terrorised, to take sensible practical measures (that aren’t disproportionate), to use security services well, to have a good foreign policy, to have good responses to incidents no matter what they are (eg medical and logistics), and investigate plus fix root causes that can be.

      1. An aviation forum isn’t a good place to discuss that in depth. A google search for why people become terrorists has many results including that from researchers. A subset of reasons include economic stagnation, human rights abuses, lack of opportunity etc. These can’t be “fixed” overnight, but foreign policy could certainly be in a direction to help address them. (An example of a poor foreign policy would be one that was causing those sort of things to get worse, not better.)

        1. I mentioned researcher Prof. Robert Pape above. I think this forum is as good as any to discuss foreign policy because the greatest effect on me and my family personally, now that I am no longer in US military, of US foreign policy is TSA. If the discussion is not here, despite your and Brett’s cogent analyses, then there will be an ever expanding TSA security perimeter at airports and beyond.

    1. I agree. I ran across a paper by manpower analysis experts who attempted to calculate the number of government agents that it would take to completely stop terrorism. Their answer? They could completely stop terrorism if the government had an infinite number of agents.

      IMHO, our best response is to treat terrorism as criminal acts, not as acts of war.

      By choosing to fight the “war on terrorism” we’ve set ourselves up to lose the war.

  9. The sad part is you are not talking about people just planting a bomb somewhere, but in a lot of cases you are talking about someone being talked into blowing themselves up in a certain location that will kill/hurt a large number of people.

    Parents used to worry about their children being brain washed by the Moonies to speak of peace and love and collect money at airports, now parents have to worry about their children being brain washed to blow themselves up at airports.

    Will one day instead of hijacking a plane to Cuba, someone will try and hijack a space ship to Venus?

  10. I would think the safest thing to do is to ensure that people get checked in and go through security as quickly as possible. Having long lines of people waiting in one area makes for an easy target for anyone who wants mass casualties.

  11. Pre 9/11 airplanes were soft targets in the sense that nobody expected a hijacker to use the plane itself as a weapon. Post 9/11 regardless of security no hijacker is going to get away with much on a plane as the public was now vigilant. Anyone even starts to go for the cockpit is going to get tackled. It’ll take a generation before that can be attempted again. Likewise now people are going to be at higher alert levels in pre-security areas of airports now. No additional “theater” required.

    The bad guys will move from soft target to soft target as they always have done throughout history.

  12. A more practical way to implement security against bombers at airports, train stations and other public spaces is to employ bomb sniffing dogs and electronic detectors. This is non-intrusive and probably more effective than current TSA procedures. This response is affordable and flexible and can be reinforced with additional police presence when required.

  13. The answer to you question is no, of course. Where do you draw the line as to where you are not checked and then where you are, if at all? And, are things radically different today from what they used to be? Must there be more security? Can there be?

    Bomb plots? My Pa. farming country high school of the late ’50s had nothing of a security nature, but we seemed to have a bomb threat cacalled in every week. Today, according to my hometown, local paper, the high school has lots of high tech security, but surprise, surprise, there are now just as many bomb threats, call-ins, if not more than there ever were—a couple every week. No bomb has gone off in any year. Has all this high tech security worked? Just luck?

    During my working years, we did a lot of work in Germany. The Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhof Group, what a mess but we somehow avoided any problems? Luck, I guess.

    In my early flying days there were the ever-ongoing Cuban hijacking issues–82 airplanes hijacked in 1968, 150 by the end of 1972. And, I had a close encounter, not as a victim, but as a suspect.

    IAD to Florida, late ’60s or early ”70s, a Southern Airways DC-9 flight, before the days the hijacking problem was all that hot but just when the Sky Marshall program was kicking in, I parked at the IAD lot, then right there in front of that beautiful terminal, walked the short distance up the stairs to Southern’s check-in counter, checked my bag but kept my briefcase of my usual “airliner travel materials,” walked another 50 feet across the IAD terminal, down the steps, to Southern’s gate and hopped on the DC-9, without any security check or question of any kind.

    Somewhere over the Alabama countryside, looking out the window with open briefcase, showing those wonderful Esso highway, Southern columnar flight listing timetables, camera, and compass, a series of questions were asked of me (apparently at the behest of the fatherly-looking sky marshall just across the aisle): Flight attendant–“What are you doing?” Following my flight path.” Captain: “Where are you going?” “Miami!” (Ding, ding, ding!) (In those days, nobody was flying to Miami from IAD, so you had to take a milk run though Georgia, Alabama, and change at Eglin AFB, then on to Tallahassee, or such, to Orlando, and then, Miami, as I recall, but to the captain, my saying Miami was really “Cuba!”.

    OK, so we arrive at Eglin, and some Air Force base security politely pulled me from the transfer PAX line and escorted me to the air police office interrogation. I explained my airliner travel -enjoying life the best I could and the nice pilot seemed to buy it, even if the sky marshall seemed a little dubious, not sure any passenger should read timetables or maps, with compass, or airliners. I disagreed, politely.) Nevertheless, I lived happily ever as the pilot personally escorted me to Southern’s counter, hoping against hope, I not stop flying Southern again. He seemed to be wonderful rep for Southern and I flew them again, always assuming I was having special oversight. And, poor Southern did run into some very unfortunate hijacking situations.

    Anyway, isn’t it, we have met the enemy and they is us! We’re all crazy, weird, each in our own way and is there much more that can and should be done, other than just “Do onto others as you would have them do unto you?” But…?

  14. I agree that moving the security perimeter and checkpoints will not solve the problem. I believe that anyplace there are queues could be a potential target whether it be at an airport ticket counter or security checkpoint or a queue to get into a place such as Staples Center or even long queues at Wal Mart or the local grocery store when things are busy.

  15. Brett, they sort of do that at Indian airports; only ticketed pax allowed inside the terminal buildings (though no additional scans). They also have security checks on the approach roads to the airports with 3mph speed bumps so the police can take a look and if anything looks suspicious they can check the car there.

    It works for India …. BUT …. most of the major airports/terminals there are new and can support this. And with a population of a billion they don’t have the intelligence infrastructure to monitor the terrorists.

    Over here and in Western Europe it would be totally impractical to do those things. Imagine how much more gridlocked the traffic approaching LAX or Heathrow would be. So I agree with you.

    My concern about flying from the likes of BRU (and AMS and CDG though less) is that the security services aren’t stopping these people before they attack. The “liquids bomb” plot of 2006 (that which brought forth the 100ml liquids in a Jiffy bag rules) was foiled by the London Metropolitan Police well before they could put it into action (indeed they knew exactly what was going on and they conducted the arrests earlier than they wanted to because of a leak this side of the pond).

  16. What if there was no publicity (reporting in the media) regarding the bombing. The purpose of the bombings is to make a statement. If this was removed, would bombings / terrorism be reduced? It’s called censorship, but might be a lot cheaper than all the security.

    1. Bodover – Other than completely undermining the entire foundation of this country, sure, that would probably help.

  17. EBL actually does have a pre-departure terminal separate from the airport. All ground transportation can only proceed this far, where ticketed passengers (and presumably airport employees) go through a cursory screening before boarding a bus to the terminal where check-in and normal security is performed.

    It ran efficiently in EBL, but it certainly wouldn’t work at LAX.

  18. Ok, these attacks are awful. But it’s still an insignificant threat for travelers. I know, I know, yes, it’s horrific for those who suffered the attack. These attacks are amplified on TV (with endless repetition of grainy cell phone video) to a point where folks flying an RJ from Des Moines to O’Hare think they are under threat. Radical political terror kills people but not on the scale even of auto accidents. In every case, the things we most fear are the least likely to happen. I imagine ISIS realizes that one successful attack equals hours and hours of news coverage which leads to flailing irrational fear in the populace. Everybody: fly wherever you want. The world will never be 100% safe but the odds that your travels will result in death by terror attack are quite slim indeed.

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