Holes in the security mesh

ICAO mandates proper perimeter security at airports covering everything from fencing to bollards and ditches. So why are there so many breeches of airport boundaries?

Airport perimeters have been breeched multiple times globally during the past few years.

These breeches have ranged from accidental to deliberate or criminals acts and include reported cases of stowaways in commercial aircraft. The weaknesses in perimeter security exposed by these incidents have highlighted the vulnerability of large airfields to the threat of a serious terrorist attack.

The Counter Terror Expo conference held annually in London has identified this type of threat and focused upon perimeter security at airports and many other high-risk installations since its inception.

A succession of speakers have called for more robust perimeter security defences at airports around the world. Separately, the event has long identified the threat from within whereby a rogue airport employee or employees pass information to outside organised criminals or terrorist groups.

Some of the most serious breeches in perimeter security in recent years include:

The attempt to ram a card loaded with explosives into the check-in building at Glasgow Airport in 2007.

At Brussels Airport in 2013, eight armed men stole $50 million of gems from the hold of a Zurich-bound Swiss International Air Lines Ltd. plane after breaking through the fence. The attack took place at 8 pm and was over in 10 minutes. The Brussels gunmen forced their way through the airport fence at a place where two work sites obstructed a clear view The heavily armed gang knew that an access gate was not locked and construction work meant that they could easily cut through a second security perimeter fence. They also displayed a working knowledge of how to open the Fokker 100 cargo hatch and seemingly had knowledge of which packets of diamonds to steal.

Earlier this year a teenager scrambled over a fence at Mineta San Jose International Airport and into the wheel well of a Maui-bound airliner. The stowaway survived the five hour non stop flight.

The San Jose stowaway case prompted calls for an updated review of perimeter security infrastructure at airport in the US by Congress. The last review, carried out in 2009 by the Government Audit Office, revealed significant shortcomings.

The review learned that there have been 25,000 security breaches at US airports since November 2001 and a lack of vulnerability assessments in order to identify gaps in perimeter screening. Some 87 percent of the 457 biggest airports had not had these threat assessments done. Those airports had issued a total of 900,000 security badges – a huge number to keep control of in terms of personnel vetting and access control.

Some airport vulnerabilities were singled out in the report. For example JFK had at least “a quarter mile of the perimeter fence is down, leaving a gaping hole in security along a main JFK runway.’’ This project was 4 years behind schedule although the problems have since ben rectified.

The report also expressed concern at another airport where the fence had been breached or damaged almost 20 times in less than 5 years. In fact, air traffic control tapes show that pilots on the ground were unsure of what to do when a pickup truck crashed through a fence and drove onto the tarmac on August 19, 2010.

Airport perimeter security is actually mandated by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

ICAO Annex 17 covers all matters concerned with airport security including the provision of perimeter fencing and other intruder protection systems.

The complete perimeter of an airport should be protected by a security graded fence plus in certain locations additional intruder detection systems. This sounds straightforward but the perimeter of most Code C airports can be in the region of 10 km. Airport planners need to work with security staff to understand the terrain of the perimeter its vulnerabilities and local and national threat intelligence. This includes essential infrastructure such as ducts, tunnels and sewers.

With this knowledge a suitable fencing system can be combined with other security features such as camera systems, below surface intruder detection systems and bollards.

The location of the perimeter fence can be compromised by structures or terrain that could render it virtually useless. This basic design error has been made by even large airports in the past. For example due to bad workmanship or as part of a desire to cut costs some fencing has been constructed in local ditches which means it can be more easily scaled by potential intruders.

Special measures may be required to prevent access via nearby public roads. This can be achieved through the used of bollards or ditches on the landside of the perimeter fence. If a ditch is the preferred solution this needs to be deep and wide enough so that even a 4 X 4 vehicle driven at speed at the fence will drop into the ditch before it hits.

But even with extensive perimeter security protection is is almost impossible to keep everyone out all the time. The San Jose stowaway case is a prime example.

San Jose’s sprawling airport is surrounded by 6-foot fences, some sections with barbed wire on top, according to airport spokeswoman Rosemary Barnes. At least some of the tarmac area is monitored by cameras, but airport officials were unaware of the perimeter breach.

“We have 1,050 acres,” Barnes said. “That’s a lot of fence line. He could have scaled the fence line really through any area here at the airport. It’s very easy to do so under the cover of darkness, and it appears that’s what he did.”

TSA sets the standards for airport perimeter security, but airports are responsible for implementing them, which can vary from airport to airport, with their different geographies and proximity to urban areas.

Some airports use infrared or radar perimeter sensing systems while others rely on video cameras or even guard dogs and police patrols. No matter how sophisticated the security systems, they ultimately depend on individuals watching monitors.

According to Barnes Mineta’s security program “involves many components, including outer perimeter fencing, surveillance video equipment and more than 2,800 badge employees” trained to report security concerns to law enforcement and airport operations.

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