27 Jul 2016 12:40 IST

Flying in the time of terror

Ashwini Phadnis and V Sajeev Kumar look at what our airports are doing to keep their travellers safe

Perhaps no other transportation mode is under as much attack from terrorists as flying. The recent attacks on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport and the bomb blasts at Brussels airport underscore this point.

But just how safe are Indian airports? What measures are being taken to ensure that they don’t fall prey to terrorist and other attacks?

The three categories

Airports in India are categorised as hyper-sensitive, sensitive and normal with terrorist attacks and narcotics being the main threats. However, what needs to be remembered is that after any terrorist attack anywhere in the world, security at the over-90 airports in India is heightened regardless of the threat perception.

The process of keeping airports safe starts outside them. To ensure that potential trouble-makers are not allowed anywhere near the airport, the work of weeding them out begins more than a kilometre away from the terminal buildings at major airports.

A passenger driving to the airport in Delhi, for instance, might smile at the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) personnel as his car drives over the rumblers embedded in the road but what he probably does not realise is that he has just crossed the first line of security at the capital’s airport.

Sources told BusinessLine that the security agencies carefully monitor all vehicles and persons entering Delhi and other major airports.

Even the dustbins placed outside the terminal building in Delhi can withstand the impact of a bomb if placed inside.

To ensure flawless safety and security, Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) has introduced a high-end robotic system with the induction of a remote mobile investigator and two threat containment vessels that cost ₹12 crore. According to VJ Kurian, Managing Director, CIAL, the family of safety robots developed by Pedsco (Canada), the threat containment vessels and sophisticated luggage containment vehicle (both developed by Nabco, USA) have been handed over to the CISF.

“CIAL is equipped with latest bomb detection and disposal equipment to deal with suspect baggage and to defuse the explosives if found. In addition, the security apparatus is prepared to counter any threat in the terminal building, in the city side, or in the operational area through continuous surveillance and monitoring. The CISF through guarding and continuous patrolling secure the perimeter,” Kurian said.

He added that biometric access control readers and perimeter intrusion detection systems are also being planned as per guidelines issued by the regulatory authority.

Chennai Airport Director Deepak Shastri says that often during high alerts, surveillance at nakas and toll booths located on the city side of the airport is enhanced by the State Police, which also carries out random checks as a deterrent on airport approach roads.

Shastri adds that strict access control is enforced to regulate entry into the terminal building, air side, all operational areas and other aviation facilities. During a high alert, a secondary ladder-point check is carried out by the airlines and a Quick Reaction Team is positioned on full alert round-the-clock. In some airports security checks are more stringent than at others. So, for instance, additional searching of hand luggage is likely at Mumbai airport which is surrounded by slums around its boundary.

High ceiling

Most airport terminal buildings in the country now have high ceilings to minimise the impact of a bomb blast. “The terminal building façade is made of glass and has a high ceiling. This is not only for aesthetics but also from the security perspective as a high ceiling in an airport terminal building makes sense,” said an official who has served at various airports around the country for over four decades.

The responsibility for the overall security of Indian airports lies with the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) which vets expansion plans of  airports including terminal buildings and city-side designs.

The main security agency at an airport is the CISF, a paramilitary organisation, which is in charge of airport  security  under the regulatory framework of the BCAS. The CISF was formed as an Airport  Security Group to protect Indian  airports. Every airport has now also been given an APSU (Airport Security Unit), a trained unit to counter unlawful interference with civil aviation. Apart from this, every domestic airline has a security group which looks after aircraft security.

Security/screening of cargo is done by regulated agents or airlines’/airports’ own security staff. These staff members are tested and certified by the BCAS.

As late as December last year, the department related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture in a report presented to Parliament stressed on the need for security to be “adequate” and “in proportion” to the threat perception. It recommended that the security component of the Passenger Security Fee (PSF) be enhanced so that it was commensurate with the security expenditure and ensure that security was not compromised.

The aviation industry as a whole has also been calling on governments around the globe to do more for airport security. In June this year, at its annual meeting in Dublin, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association for the world’s airlines, expressed concerns that current conflicts around the world could lead to further terrorist attacks. It called on member airlines, airports and other appropriate aviation industry stakeholders to work in partnership to counter these risks.  The resolution on the threat of terrorism to the airline industry adopted after the 72nd IATA AGM in Dublin also calls on governments and their enforcement agencies to commit all possible resources, particularly intelligence resources, for fighting the use of aviation for terrorist acts.

With the world becoming a more dangerous place, the global airport  security market is predicted to more than double to around $45 billion by 2018, and investments in security and surveillance, access control, perimeter security, integration, cybersecurity and screening are on top of the agenda for heads of security. However, with terrorists changing their tactics all these attempts too will have to be improved.

This is possibly what CIAL’s Kurian meant when he pointed out that the modus operandi of the terrorists is unimaginable and they have all means to strike airport facilities and take all of us by surprise. “Only a dedicated intelligence network of the Central and the State governments can provide advance information so that the security apparatus can be alerted to thwart any attempt to hijack aircraft or sabotage the airport by any terrorist groups,” Kurian added.

(With inputs from TE Rajasimhan)