Are Australian airports secure?

Recent events in Australia have brought our airport security into the spotlight. When we compare our airport security with other countries, it becomes evident that there is much room for improvement at home.

The most striking difference between security at Australian airports and those in many overseas countries, is that in Australia we only have one weapons screening barrier and that this is well inside the airport. This is a serious deficiency for a number of reasons.

Firstly, when there is no screening at the entry to the airport, only travellers are screened, visitors are not. Anyone can enter the airport with a weapon or explosive device and mix with the crowds of people in arrivals, departures or in the busy retail areas. The area of biggest risk in an Australian airport is a terrorist attack in an area where large numbers of people gather and this is most likely in the departures hall. The recent advice of the Australian Government to arrive early at the airport has significantly increased the attractiveness of this area to terrorists as the number of people present at any time has greatly increased. In 2011 suicide bombers attacked Domodedovo International Airport near Moscow that resulted in 37 deaths and 173 injuries. At the time, they were not screening visitors to the airport, now they are.

Secondly, the weapons screening is a single point of failure. A number of factors could combine to allow a weapon to pass through the screening point such as staff distraction, corruption, failure to follow procedures, equipment underperforming. This year, a man in Texas was sentenced to three years prison for bribing a security guard on five occasions in order to smuggle drugs through passenger security screening at SFO. This single point of screening is very rare in many countries. Most overseas airports have screening at the entry to the building (some where all luggage is opened at the entry and inspected) and again at the passenger departures entry. Some go further and have screening at the departure gate lounges. It is also usual for screening to occur at international flight transfer points. In doing so, the single point of failure is removed.

Full body scanners are deployed at the screening points at major airports in Australia. These however are usually only used to screen a sample of passengers. Where these are deployed at overseas airports, all passengers are screened.

The security of baggage handling for departing flights in Australia is also of concern. I personally have had four suitcases forced open, damaged and have had items stolen from them at one particular airport. In one instance, this was reported to the Federal Police but no response was received. This is understandable as their website states that “The AFP carefully considers all reports of Commonwealth crimes, however we do not have the resources to investigate every reported crime.” It’s reasonable to assume therefore that people engaged in petty crime on Commonwealth property such as interfering with baggage at airports know this and have no fear of being caught.

Of course, there are many places in the world where airport security is far worse than Australia, but we can do much better.

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Author: Simon Walker

Simon established Connley Walker Pty Ltd in 1996. He is a Fellow of Engineers Australia, a Registered Building Practitioner, a Member to the Australian Institute of Project Management, a Registered International Professional Engineer, a Registered APEC Engineer and an SCEC Endorsed Security Zone Consultant. He is the author of the books Operational risk management: Controlling opportunities and threats, 2001 ISBN 0957907400 and Hospital and Health Care Security in Australia, 2009 ISBN 978-0-9579074-1-6.