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How to boost airports security in Egypt?

Ayman S. Ashour , Wednesday 25 Nov 2015
Views: 2346
Views: 2346

I have always liked the expression that security is both an art and a science. In security in general, we must always balance multiple factors: the levels of risk or the efficacy of the security, the convenience of those who have to deal with the security be them employees or customers, the privacy of both of these groups, the ease of use of operating and ensuring that a security setup does not deteriorate over time and, of course, costs- both initial set up capital costs and ongoing operating costs.

Transport security is particularly difficult because of the large numbers of people involved and the transient nature of the customers or travellers. The challenge to secure mass transit systems such as buses and trains is formidable and they remain mostly vulnerable, as can been seen from terrorist attacks in many countries around the world. The Bombay railway bombings in India and the 7/7 attacks in London are among the many examples.

It is virtually impossible to design a truly adequate security system for buses, metros and train stations. The number of travellers is too large and the inconvenience would grind economies to a halt. Airports and air travel are seen as prized terrorist targets because they symbolise the global integration of a country and its people. Air disasters, with their inevitable catastrophic outcomes, tend to capture the attention of news organisations and instil fear in the public like nothing else.

In evaluating the security of an airport, a good place to start is the layers of security. Egyptian airports generally are among the best in the world in this: There are security checkpoints a mile or so as you approach the airport by road presenting the outer layer, then right at the entrance of the terminals, there is an initial scanning of the luggage to enter into the actual building itself and then further security scanning of travellers and their luggage as they enter the check-in area where passengers can then proceed to passport control, duty free shopping and so on.

Passengers generally undergo thorough security checks to get to “secure zones” by their individual gates. Only then, under tight control, can passengers access what is often referred to as “sterile zone” or the area where the actual airplanes are.

In the post 9/11 world, the approach to airport security changed to enhance security and minimise inconvenience. Most major airports have shifted towards having centralised passenger security checks immediately after the check in areas rather than at the gates. This has allowed the airports to have much larger “secure zones” well before getting close to the “sterile zone.”

Centralised security checks also mean that the supervision and auditing over those operatives performing the security checks is easier. It has also allowed the use of more expensive scanning equipment and systems but fewer as they are not required at every gate.

Since 9/11, employee security has also changed. Many airports have radically reduced the number of employees with access rights to the secure and sterile zones. It should also be noted that with CCTV and human surveillance a much larger and less crowded secure zone offer security operatives the opportunity to detect worrying behaviour.

The levels of searches and security checks for employees entering the secure or sterile zones should be no less than that for passengers. The confirmation of the identity of the employees who enter secure and sterile zones must also be no less stringent than that applied for passengers to access these areas.

A critical aspect of security is the human role, the operators of the scanning machines to enter the secure zone, to enter the check in areas, to enter the building and to drive through the checkpoint at the airport road. It is critical that these operators rotate every 20 to 30 minutes and not be expected to work eight or twelve hour shifts without frequent concentration breaks.

Most equipment manufacturers would admit that 20 to 30 minutes is a normal limit for operator concentration. Whenever you see an operator smoking a cigarette, or having a cup of tea while performing his security role, you need not blame him, but rather redesign the role to make it reasonable not to expect him to be in consumption mode while performing his duty.

The use of relatively inexpensive electronic or human surveillance monitoring the level of attentiveness of security operators particularly at employee entrances is critical.

While airports may have multiple security zones in the different terminals, the sterile zone in most airports tend to be one very large area. Once inside the sterile zone, a person can move from one terminal to another and to different aircraft with luggage, cleaning or catering services. Lax security at one terminal could allow an object or a person entry into the sterile zone and thus inside access everywhere.

Most travellers to Egyptian airports would have noticed that the level of security at a terminal such as the Seasonal Terminal is different from that of British Airways or Swiss flights. An airport is as secure as its least secure area, it is as vulnerable as it most vulnerable area, for threats can travel unhindered.

The sterile zones in airports are also vulnerable to penetration from their outer perimeters. Some highly secure airports treat their perimeters not unlike prisons. Perimeters are subject to three kinds of threats: jumping, tunnelling and direct penetration through cutting barbed wire or breaking through a wall.

Prisons have resorted to the use of double walls or fences to reduce the level of threat of jumping and break in with motion detection between the barriers, motion detection is achieved with human or electronic surveillance or both. Protection against tunnelling is particularly difficult in airports, in prisons ground vibration detection technology is used.

With airplanes landing and moving, the issue of unwanted alarms could render a vibration dependent system useless and accordingly they are rarely used. Reasonable substitutes include regular diligent surveillance and inspection of the airport grounds. The systems used for airport perimeters are not unlike those used to secure turbulent borders.

The number of employees accessing the sterile zone and their conduct within it is always a critical security risk. The risks extend to airport ground personnel: baggage handling, catering, cleaning, hospitality, transport and so on. The 2001 attempt known as the shoe bomber alerted security professionals to the risks of smuggling parts of an explosive device to be assembled onboard an aircraft or inside the sterile zone. This makes it critical to ensure high levels of monitoring of employees entering the sterile zone.

Modern airports employ sophisticated access control systems to keep close track of employee movements. New technology applies analytics to surveillance to warn of suspicious behaviour automatically. Turnstiles are often used in employee entrances to ensure that access to secure zones or the sterile zone is regulated and friendliness between security operators and employees does not translate into security lapses.

Much like security operators can’t be expected to do their jobs effectively with 10 or 12 hour shifts, those operators monitoring remote systems such as CCTV or access control need frequent breaks and they themselves must be subject to close monitoring.

One-hundred percent security in any airport is impossible, a casual reader may be able to glean the vulnerabilities of any airport from applying some of the above discussions.

Whenever I am at an airport, I assess its level of security by the level of discipline I observe from the minute I enter the building to the moment I board the plane. Is the operator of the luggage scanning equipment right at the entrance of the building speaking on his mobile phone? Is he fully focused on his job? Is the belt over full of luggage or will he actually be able to see threatening objects? Does he ever stop the belt for a close inspection? Is the employee driving disabled passengers in electric carts to their gate speeding and manoeuvring or is he concerned about being seen on CCTV? Are there cleaners approaching passengers for charity in the secure zone? Is the bus taking the passengers to the plane sticking to its lanes and stop signs or is it over speeding and cutting corners. Is the bus driver alone or is he accompanied by a colleague that should not really be there?

Egypt can attain very high levels of airport security because the foundation is good and the concept of layers is exemplary. I believe quick steps to address operator training and rotation will provide an immediate boost to security with minimal negative effect.

A more difficult but urgent requirement is for the drastic reduction of the number of employees with access privileges to secure and sterile areas and instituting the level of employee discipline that can be seen in many well run establishments in Egypt.

*The writer is an electronics engineer, and visiting professor at Suffolk University, Boston. His blog is


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