How secure are our airports?


Cape Town - If you're travelling long-haul in the next few days and feeling slightly apprehensive you're surely not alone - leaving the questions how safe are the various airport hubs across the globe and what are authorities doing about it?

Tuesday's hijacking of an EgyptAir flight from Cairo to Alexandria is said to be a rare event, as Statista data shows heightened airport security measures including x-ray machines and metal detectors have dramatically reduced incidents - but it is still disconcerting to note that in most airports across the world, it really is only the air-side part that is tightly controlled.  

This was horrifically apparent in the recent Islamic State bombing in the departure hall of Brussel's Zaventem airport which killed at least 30 people - with the airport only partially restarting its operations this week.

 Infographic: Airliner Hijackings Have Become Rare Events | StatistaYou will find more statistics at Statista

Needless to say these sorts of events can be quite traumatic for all parties concerned, albeit this rather bizarre reaction, putting most travellers on high alert. 

While no apparent terror threat exists in South Africa, a notable incident was when a group protesting poor service delivery managed to dump a bucket load of human waste at the drop-and-go entrance of Cape Town International Airport back in 2013. 

Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) spokesperson Colin Naidoo told Traveller24 in an official statement that due to the sensitive nature of strategies to combat crime and terrorist acts, ACSA cannot publicly share details around security measures or whether it has increased measures around SA's airports in light of the recent events. 

In February reports alleged that security at OR Tambo International Airport had been "compromised" due to upgrade electronic perimeter monitoring systems.

According to the SACAA, it continuously reviews security measures at SA's airports to "ensure that they meet both local and international legislative requirements". 

"At this point in time, OR Tambo International Airport meets the requirements as laid down in our legislation," SACAA Executive Corporate Services, Phindiwe Gwebu told Traveller24. 

'Biggest threat at SA's airport is fraud and corruption'

Tourism Business Council of South Africa’s (TBCSA) Tourism Safety Initiative (TSI), in operation since 2007 and actively focused on the analysis of information related to safety and security incident related to tourism, says data shows the biggest challenge facing SA's tourism industry is "corruption and fraud" from a safety and security point of view and this is not just prevalent at the airports.

"It is important to highlight that this is not unique to South Africa as we do know that many other tourist destinations are facing similar challenges," says Kagiso Mosue, Spokesperson for TBCSA.

While TSI says crime is not its core business, the analysis is important as it allows them to pick up trends and patterns on incidences of safety and security allowing them to feed it back to the intelligence of the police to help them improve measures as well as prosecutions. 

Global Safety Measures improved:

Following the traumatic incidents of the last two week, Reuters reports several countries have tightened or reviewed its airport security.  

Security is reported to be tighter at airports around Asia following the incident, with South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and India saying that they were deploying additional resources at the major hubs.

New measures included increased checks on those who were entering terminals and additional patrols within the terminal buildings, said officials from around the region.

In India, where airport security is tighter than in most parts of Asia, only passengers with a valid flight ticket and passports were allowed to enter the terminal buildings before Tuesday's attacks.

After Brussels, the country has begun to check some of the bags that the passengers bring into the terminals, said Surender Singh, the director general of the Central Industrial Security Force, which is in charge of security at commercial airports.

But he ruled out checking every bag that goes into the terminals, saying that security forces needed to balance security with passenger conveniences.

"It will not be possible at the moment. It would require a whole lot of changes at the airport itself," said Singh. "With hundreds of passengers lined up at Delhi airport, 100 percent checking of everybody and it would come to a standstill."

Authorities in London, Paris and Frankfurt responded to the attacks by stepping up the number of police on patrol at their airports and other transport hubs.

In the United States, the country's largest cities have been placed on high alert and the National Guard was called in to increase security at New York City's two airports.

A United Nations agency was already reviewing airport security following the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt by a makeshift soda-can bomb in October last year. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for smuggling the bomb on board.

But despite attacks like a suicide bomb at Moscow's Domodedovo airport's arrival hall in 2011 that killed 37 people, there has been less attention focused on how airports themselves are secured.

Airport Checkpoints 

The relative openness of public airport areas in Western Europe contrasts with some in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where travellers' documents and belongings are checked before they are allowed to enter the airport building.

In Turkey, passengers and bags are screened on entering the terminal and again after check-in. Moscow also checks people at terminal entrances.

Israel's Ben Gurion Airport is known for its tough security, including passenger profiling to identify those viewed as suspicious, bomb sniffing devices and questioning of each individual traveller.

In the Kenyan capital Nairobi, where authorities are on high alert for attacks by Somali-based al Shabaab militants, passengers have to get out of their cars, which are then searched, at a checkpoint a kilometer from the main terminal.

But adding checks such as bag X-rays at terminal entrances could themselves create a potential target, one analyst said.

"Any movement of the security ‘comb’ to the public entrance of a terminal building would cause congestion, inconvenience and flight delays, while the inevitable resulting queues would themselves present an attractive target," said Ben Vogel, Editor, IHS Jane’s Airport Review. 

What to read next on Traveller24:

- Turkey travel: SA keeps calm as Australia, Israel and US issue warnings

Brussels Airport 'operationally ready to restart flights'