Airport Security: The Challenges Ahead

Article excerpt

LONG BEFORE THE TRAGEDY OF Pan Am flight 103, congressional planners were shaping airport security's future. in 1987 a Department of Transportation (DOT) task force recommended that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) develop a standard airport security program. Legislation passed by Congress in late 1988 requires all US airports to control by computer the access to aeronautical operational areas. " That rule, FAR 107.14, has created substantial interest in security programs and placed a severe financial burden on airport operators.

Ownership and operation of US airports vary considerably. Airports can be either public or privately owned. When public, they are usually operated by a city, county, state, or airport authority. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for example, operates LaGuardia, Kennedy, and Newark airports.

Ownership also determines an airport's law enforcement structure. State and local police forces or special airport authority forces are used primarily. The FAA also requires airports to meet specific criteria to ensure a consistent level of service. Most airports employ forces responsible for physical security, and private contractors often provide security forces.

Security is further subdivided between an airport operator and air carriers by exclusive area agreements. Carriers are responsible for physical security in areas they lease from the airport, including air operations areas, cargo buildings, and airline spaces within the terminal. As many as 25 organizations may share security responsibility at a single airport, according to the President's Commission on Aviation Security and Terrorism.

With responsibility so fragmented, maintaining a consistent level of security throughout an airport is indeed a challenge. The President's Commission also found that implementing contingency plans in response to larger threats is difficult when so many parties must work together.

While terrorism remains the single most ominous fear of the aviation community, airports are not free of the crime endemic to the larger communities where they are located. Statistics on airport crime are not available because police regularly include those figures in each jurisdiction's general Crime reports.

Major airports-or category X airports as they are called by the DOT-are virtual cities unto themselves. Seventeen such airports, each of which by definition processes at least 25 million passengers per year, exist in the United States. Actual traffic is much higher. The three New York airports

combined, for example, processed nearly 90 million passengers in 1989. Due to the nature of airport operations, criminal opportunity abounds.

Airport incidents include major crimes such as murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, auto theft, and arson. Minor crimes include all types of theft, pick-pocketing, loitering, disorderly conduct, and vandalism. Other crimes affecting airports are racketeering, extortion, sabotage, narcotics trafficking, and ticket fraud.

Protecting cargo from theft remains a priority of both operators and carriers. In 1989 the FBI reduced the amount of cargo value loss required for follow-up investigation from $50,000 to $25,000. In special cases, depending on cargo content, the FBI may decide to work with local law enforcement agencies.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of the Department of Justice also maintains field offices at major airports. DEA staff members routinely screen suspect cargo and passenger flights. At many airports police canine drug teams search for narcotics among baggage and shipped parcels. In addition, an interdiction program was begun in 1989 to curtail drug traffic, primarily from Latin America.

In January 1990 an Avianca flight from Colombia to New York crashed, killing 52 passengers. In a tragic irony, several of the dead and injured were found to be smuggling cocaine on their bodies. …