The security week that was: 10/17/08

A weekly surveillance of news shaping your profession

Realistic security

I wrote in a previous recap column about how Georgia had stood up to the gun lobby and had banned guns in the non-secure side of airports. The issue had arisen because of a recent decision on the right to bear arms out of Washington, D.C., and had inspired the gun lobby to make moves to validate the right to bear in different locations.

I would guess most people in our country sit in the middle of the road: They probably highly value the right to bear arms, but they also recognize that there are locations where guns shouldn’t be allowed. Defining whether the non-secure side of an airport is the right place to allow guns is up to the public; often these are publicly owned facilities and it seems the public has to decide their norms.

A recent AP article that looked at this issue found that over one-third of the busiest U.S. airports allow guns in the non-secure areas of the terminals -- right up to the checkpoints. And that’s not OK with some people. “Some suggest that allowing guns in terminals is practically asking for them to be smuggled aboard a plane,” wrote the AP report covering this issue.

Rafi Ron, the former security chief of El Al Airlines and Ben Gurion Airport (Israel), who now works as an air security consultant, told the AP: “If your airport is not secure, then the security of your airplanes is jeopardized. You cannot separate the two.”

With all respect to Mr. Ron, who has proven time and time again to be very insightful into aviation security, I have to disagree. After all, separating the unsecure side from the secure side is why we have TSA security checkpoints. In the world of IT security, this would be like the firewall. It’s what separates the unclean side of the internet with all of its spam, malware, viruses from your hopefully clean PC. In reality, we could place that security division wherever we wanted to place it: It could theoretically be at the plane itself, right at the boarding gate. It could be between the terminals and the concourses, where it typically lies now. It could be at building entrances. It could even, if we wanted to spend the time doing full-scale people and vehicular searches, be at the airport perimeter, where people arrive via bus, train and car.

The practical approach seems to be placing it between the terminals and the concourses. This is because: 1) There is a distinct, readily available chokepoint. 2) This still allows concourse-to-concourse movement as planes change gates, flights are re-routed and redirected. 3) It limits the security checkpoint, which has a dramatic per passenger cost associated with it, to travelers only. 4) It limits the number of persons close to the plane, which means that there are less people to watch to ensure threats aren’t crossing over the last level of security.

In addition, if we’re going to say that guns can’t be in airports at all, then we have to actually enforce it. Otherwise it is like saying “We don’t allow viruses on this computer” and then not even bothering to run a virus check or a firewall.

And if we really are to enforce a gun ban and ensure that the entire airport is a sterile environment, then we would have to add a security checkpoint at all entrances to an airport’s facilities. Our airports would have to search all passengers as they arrive, before they check in. We would also have to search all family members there to help a traveler with luggage or welcome them home. Does it sound realistic to add a new set of security checkpoints and staff especially in this time of strapped budgets?

So, as we have it now, 13 of the nation’s 20 busiest airports don’t allow guns. And I’ll bet that if you are spotted with a gun inside those airports the airport police won’t hesitate to enforce the law. But I will also venture to bet that you won’t be checked to ensure you don’t have a gun or other weapon when you enter the airport facility.

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