Airport security and the ‘enemies’ within
Security in airports globally seems to be offering little answers to posers of terrorism. Insider threat accounts for major loopholes in standard security practices but still largely overlooked even in Nigeria. WOLE OYEBADE reports
Airport security and safety of air travelers are more of a huge challenge to authorities in contemporary times.
Air travel, popularly dubbed as the safest means of transportation, has become one of the soft targets of terrorist organisations. The fear of terrorism and where the cookie next crumbles are daily concern for airport handlers around the world.
Yet, ensuring adequate security measures could be a tall order given the nature of airport operations. Where security appears lax to enable ease of access that air travel demands, safety is easily compromised and a no-no by international standard. But where too rigid and perceived too unfriendly by travelers, security is more of a hindrance than help.
Since September 11, 2001 terrorist attack in the United States, airport security has taken further notches beyond normal baggage checks, metal screenings of individual persons, and rules against any object that could be used as a weapon.
Experts in the know would say security is largely intelligence gathering and rightly so. Both human and technological devices have been deployed in modern airports around the world to frisk the threats without much discomfort to ‘assets’. But the result still leaves much to be desired till date.
Atatürk airport in Turkey was the best-secured transport hub with the lowest terrorists’ risk in Europe. The scored card was credible until three gunmen shattered its peace last month, killing 44 persons.
The terror attack has prompted experts to reexamine the loopholes, one of which is the fear of sabotage from airport staffers with access to restricted areas.
Airport security expert, Group Capt. John Ojikutu (rtd), explained that security in any airport is in six layers. The first three, which comprises of checkpoint screening, access control and luggage screening, are all the duty of the airport authorities. The other three are about intelligence, with one mainly the responsibility of the regulatory authority and other two, for the airlines operators.
Ojikutu said while there is no doubt that intelligence remains the first line of defence, more attention has to be paid to access control, luggage screening and persons that come near the critical areas in the airport.
He said: “Beyond attention on passengers and their luggage, the airport staffers must also be brought under close scrutiny to quell insider threats.”
It would be recalled that at least two airport staff in the French capital are under scrutiny as investigators piece together what caused an EgyptAir jetliner to crash after taking off from Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport in May this year.
Sylvain Prevost, who trains airport personnel at the French airport, said: “The infinitely perfect does not exist,” not even among the “back of the airport employees”.
In another instance, investigation of the explosions at Brussels International Airport in March found that no fewer than 50 employees were influenced by extremism, and in previous cases, airport staff members were found to have helped terrorists pass security checks.
An average airport requires a huge size of workforce, operating in different sections. Among them are the ramp agents, customer service agents, flight dispatchers, light crews; air traffic controllers; aeronautical station operators; maintenance technicians; personnel of aircraft design and manufacturing organisations; cabin crews; flight dispatchers, apron personnel and ground handling personnel. In some airports around the world, the staffers are as much as 80,000 in number.
By international standards, access is restricted to critical areas, especially the airside, that is, all areas accessible to aircraft, including runways, taxiways and ramps. However, the level of implementing these standards differs a lot.
Not until recently, the vast majority of airport employees in the United States, with direct access to the tarmac and airplanes, do not go through any daily security screening.
“One of the greatest vulnerabilities for these airports and probably any other major airport like Miami International Airport (MIA) is the insider threat,” Lauren Stover, the airport’s security director had told the CNN.
In Nigeria, the rate of compliance to security rules, particularly daily security clearance differs greatly. From findings, only the four prominent airports offer higher guarantee.
However, the current regime of poor remuneration and welfare of airlines’ workers is a source of concern. Luggage handler for one of the airlines operating at the General Aviation Terminal (GAT) of the Murtala Muhammed Airport (MMA), Lagos, told The Guardian that his employer has not paid salary in the last three months.
Last Wednesday, pilots and engineers of a helicopter operations service company embarked on one-day warning strike in protest of unpaid salaries and wage disparities for expatriates and Nigerians. Fact is that most of the airlines are in dire straits; heavily indebted to banks, with heightened fears to quit operations.
Opinion of stakeholders is that the economic situation poses a potential risk for safety of all. An industry watcher said: “Member of a groundcrew that has not been paid for several months and has family to feed, may consider the option of making brisk business with contraband item that he or she may not even know it’s content. Imagine such person coming into contact with terrorist group. It is a dangerous times we are living in,” he said on condition of anonymity.
Notwithstanding, Ojikutu reiterated that it was high time airport handlers had paid closer attention to staffers.
“Who is watching over them? How are you recruiting people that work where the aircrafts are packed and where the luggage are and so on? Some of the things that are happening now are influenced by sabotage,” Ojikutu said.
Apparently in agreement, Li Wei, an expert on anti-terrorism studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said that eliminating human factors is the priority of all counterterrorism measures.
“If people (working in the industry) are not reliable, all other preventive measures will be useless,” Li said.
At the MMA2 in Lagos — where security is a joint agreement between the Federal Airport Authority of Nigeria (FAAN) and the managing company, Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited — the authorities, however, assured that safety remains a priority with little or no window for compromise.
Aderemi Ladigbolu of the Corporate Communications Department, Bi-Courtney Aviation Services Limited, reiterated that restricting access to critical areas is a global standard and followed to the letters in their terminal.
Ladigbolu explained that the pass carried by all staffers is denominated by colour codes and they indicate the limit of a worker’s access, adding that the security officials understand the implications of the colours.
“The fact that you have access to a particular area does not mean that your pass is automatic. There are certain areas of the terminal that no matter who you are, you have to be screened before you have access. Compliance in our case is strict and we work by processes such that there are no gaps.”
Continuing, he said: “We cooperate with security officials totally. FAAN and the police conduct background check prior to issuing us access cards. Again, our systems here are automated; you cannot even beat the system. That is why ours is foolproof. Insider threat is not an issue with us and even if it is, because we don’t know what is on the mind of everyone, our system is up to date to take care of it,” he said.
For the airports at large, the Managing Director of the Federal Airports Authority of Nigeria (FAAN), Saleh Dunoma, also assured that the agency, saddled with security, profiles workers who have access to the sensitive areas of the airport.
Dunoma said that every six months the on-duty cards (ODC) is renewed and before the renewal the agency carries out background checks of its personnel and that of other workers to ensure that every person with the card passes security screening.
“There are a lot of efforts that have been put in by various security agencies and the federal government to make sure that our airports are secured. We have never disputed the possibility of insider threat. As people working for you, you cannot rule out the issue, but what we do in order to forestall that is that anybody that comes and wants to access any part of the airports, whether staff, personnel from government agencies or workers of our concessionaires, must go through some checks before we access them on-duty cards.
“We subject them to background checks, especially if they are staff. This is key and once we found you wanting we deny you the access and we send message to your agency and we do this periodically. Once we give you ODC and you want to renew it after six months, we carry out another background check. Through this we are able to check insider threat. And if we get a report of any questionable character at the airport, we make sure we get the person out,” he said.