The threat within

23 August 2009 (Last Updated August 23rd, 2009 18:30)

Having worked as a head of security for the world's most secure airport, Rafi Ron is an expert at keeping danger at bay. In the lead up to the Counter Terrorism and Security conference in London in November we caught up with him to find out where the world's airport designs are falling behind with security today. By Penny Jones.

For holiday and business flyers alike, airports are designed to offer comfort and safety throughout. However, security omissions at the point of design are leaving most of the world's airports open to attack.

Rafi Ron is the former director of security at Israel's Tel-Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport, deemed the world's safest due to its early efforts in protecting against terrorist attacks and current use of modern technology with attention to the psychology of travellers.

As the current president of security consultancy firm New Age Security Solutions, Ron works with the US Federal Government on its projects and has testified before the senate and house committees on aviation security. We caught up with Ron in the lead up to the Counter Terrorism and Security Conference being held in London in November to hear his thoughts on airport security and design in today's international airport environment.

Penny Jones: You have been quoted in the past as saying, despite modern technologies and the large number of new developments taking place, airports are still not doing enough during design to incorporate security. Where do you think the problem lies?

"Security at Ben Gurion has always been a very high priority and is measured by real live results."

Rafi Ron: The heart of the problem is that security is perceived by most airports as an engineering problem, while in reality it can only be achieved through integration and early comprehensive planning driven by the security threat, by mandatory compliance requirements, by available technology, by deep understanding and accommodation of operational needs as well as the business implications and financial and political limitations of the airport.

The security expertise needed for this complicated process is beyond engineering and requires involvement of security SME's (subject matter expertise).

Security at Ben Gurion, for example, has always been a very high priority and is measured by real live results. Therefore no process, be it an operations or design process, is done without security in mind and all major projects have security SME involved at the concept development phase and throughout the design and implementation process. That is not really the situation in most airports around the world, even since the terrorist attacks in the US on 9/11. Most airports design and build projects are run by engineering department working with external engineering firms with no security expertise.

In many airports today, security is done either in response to an incident or regulations, with a stove-pipe rather than comprehensive approach. When budget is made available new technologies will be considered as stand-alone solution, with little or no input from the security side.

PJ: What problems can this lead to in airport design?

RR: The problems go right back to the designers and project managers, who are working along a line of assumptions.

"Security omissions at the point of design are leaving most of the world's airports open to attack."

They will have security leads from the airport – levels of threat to design around and another level of compliance to work against. In many cases this assumption is either proven wrong or the quality of the references is relatively poor. Often they will make their own interpretation of this without having input from security experts, which means that you end up with a design that often needs to be changed later on or, from a security perspective, which needs to be changed to meet design requirements. This creates all kinds of weaknesses and costs an immense amount of money.

PJ: Can you give an example of airport design that falls foul to this on a regular basis?

RR: The latest example is the 'fake suicide attack' that occurred at La Guardia Airport in New York in mid 2009. The CCTV system recorded no evidence of the incident that took place at one of the airport's security checkpoints.

There is a lot of resistance today in the architectural design of terminals to mitigate the threat of car and suicide bombs and there is no legal requirements yet to ensure airports protect against this. But looking at the recent attack in Glasgow, it is evident the threat is out there.

Ben Gurion has done this from day one of the design process of its new Terminal 3 and when Terminal 5 at Heathrow was designed its main roadways had a calculated stand-off distance from the building. It also used reinforced glass according to specifications put into the original design and approved by the regulator.

"The heart of the problem is that security is perceived by most airports as an engineering problem."

What should happen is that when an airport issues a request for proposal (RFP) for new construction, it must include a security requirement and ensure that the architect or engineering firms that submit proposals will have security SME in their team. BAA and the British authorities are familiar with the need for high security standards following many years of defending against IRA terrorism that included use of car bombs. Many other airports today will incorporate a large glass façade at least in the front of the terminal to allow a lot of light in but will not use reinforced glass or create the proper stand-off distance.

In Tel Aviv, in addition to the stand-off distance, measures are in place to protect the glass façade including special layered solutions for the glass in combination with a 'catch system' behind it to absorb any flying glass should an explosion occur. This reduces the risk to the terminal integrity and to the people using it.

PJ: So who is ultimately responsible for ensuring such measures are put in place?

RR: There are three 'entities' responsible. The first is the government that should create standard minimum requirements and enforce them by use of legal power. The second is the airport (or airport authority) that must include security requirements based on expert advice in its RFP documents. Finally, design and build companies must have security SME involvement through the whole project.

I have seen airports that are investing tremendous amounts of money in security systems that don't deliver the security add-on value because they were not focused on the correct legal requirements, terrorist modus operandi and security operational needs.

PJ: You talk of adding in extra security – this can be from the time someone enters a car park until they are boarding the plane – how does this affect efficiency if done right, and can design help overcome issues with passenger flow?

RR: There is a common belief that security and efficiency contradict each other. In some cases this might be true but in many cases it is not.

"Airports that are investing tremendous amounts of money in security systems that don't deliver the security add-on value."

It often happens that a poorly designed security environment is translated into passenger and tenant frustration and rage. The public respects, in most cases, the need for security and is willing to pay a logical price in inconvenience. What the public is not willing to accept is unprofessional and illogically enforced solutions.

After 9/11 the US government decided all passengers' bags had to be screened with computerised tomography. They had very large machines brought in to terminals that were not designed to cater for them. Hundreds of machines were in the lobbies in front of the check in counters removing what little space was available to the passenger anyway, this caused a huge customer service problem and slowed-down operations substantially and created an even bigger security hazard with the area too populated to police.

PJ: So would you suggest any particular technologies that airports looking at implementing design plans soon should be factoring in?

RR: Obviously, there is no silver bullet solution. Any future solution will be based on integration of technology, human resources, quality process planning and execution.

For example, I think that in the next five to ten years we will see great developments in the ability to use video for prevention purposes. This will also probably improve the passenger experience at the airport because none of it is obtrusive and it will elevate the level of security.

These systems will eventually be integrated with perimeter security protection systems, access control systems, CCTV systems on strong technology platforms with command and control centres, tying in levels of data fusion.

To summarise, security has become an unavoidable factor in airport and terminal design. The earlier we recognise this, the better our design will be and the better our airports will be able to deliver high-quality security in a customer service environment. This is the best way to defeat terrorism.

Ron Rafi will speak further on the issue of airport security and design at the Counter Terrorism and Security event at Radisson SAS Portman Hotel in London on 17 and 18 November. For more information visit www.thedefencealliance.com/cts/.