At the Frontline: A Q&A with Atlanta Airport Security Director Richard Duncan

Duncan shares his thoughts on securing the nation's busiest passenger airport


We also conduct security awareness training, and they receive a briefing on the security procedures they are expected to implement. We started our Hartsfield Harry program in 2000. And one of the reasons we recommended that program is because people are hesitant to get outside of their comfort zone. That is, if they see someone who is not properly wearing their badge, they might let that person go. But with the Hartsfield Harry program, it encourages employees to challenge people on the ramp. And if you are caught without your badge, they can come up and challenge you. And if you are the person who is playing the “Harry” role, then they are rewarded with a $25 check, and their names are entered into a drawing for an even larger award. To me that program has been very positive because we have had a lot of good comments coming from them [the ramp employees].

Can you tell our readers more about your badging system?

As far as materials, we probably use in the neighborhood of 50,000 sets of badge materials in a year, and that’s a combination of new issues, reissues, and of course the replacement process for damaged badges. If someone loses a badge, it’s reported to us and there’s a penalty or a replacement fee associated with a lost badge. We don’t have that great of a loss factor. We have to keep our loss factor down below 5 percent; that’s a TSA requirement. If you go above 5 percent, you have to replace your entire badge sequence.

When 9/11 happened, what were your first thoughts and your first reaction?

Well, for the first hour or so, when the first plane hit, everybody thought it was an accident, so it was more of trying to assess what had taken place. And then information started coming in and we realized it had a lot more implications than just one airplane hitting a building, and then there was the second airplane. By the time the second airplane hit, we had already started forming our command and control center to start operating and assessing what impact it would have upon our airport. And as the day progressed, we implemented the security measures that came down from the FAA at that time. Probably within a couple hours, they basically stopped flights out because they told everyone that the airspace would not be opening back up soon. So once the airspace was closed, the logical thing to deal with was “What are you going to do with all the people who are standing here waiting to take a flight?”, and so we started encouraging passengers to leave the airport and find some other means of traveling or finding some other location that they could go. We cannot sustain that large a number of people for a very long period of time.

Did you have to increase the size of your staff following 9/11?

I think we basically had already started putting in requests to increase security and the security staff, and I think I’ve added directly onto my staff maybe six positions since 9/11. And then this year, we have added additional staff, primarily in preparation for the new facilities that will be coming online in the airport. We have 36 full-time security staff members. In addition to the police, we also have a contract security staff that also provides access control staff at the gates. These would be the people who actually interact with the people who are trying to authenticate their badges as they come onto the airport.

Can you describe the basic processes you use to respond to security incidents?

The first is the notification that goes out. There is a notification system in place that’s run primarily through our operations station. They will send out a notification to our tenants, the airlines and the DoA (Department of Aviation) staff to tell them what has taken place, and then they will update those notifications. Once the incident has taken place and is beginning to stabilize, we also have a group working on the coordination and preparing to reopen the airport. So it’s a continuous type of operation that takes place to ensure that all parties are kept informed of the activities.

Notification is primarily through text messages, Blackberry type of notification and some paging that would take place in the airport. We will use the airport-wide paging system to notify people also.