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Airport security weak spot must be addressed after Ataturk attack

By John Coyne

As details emerge of the Ataturk Airport terror attack in Istanbul there are startling similarities to be drawn between it and the 2016 Brussels Airport bombing.

The argument here is that as terror targets, planes and airports have great symbolic value for terrorists. Attacks on airports symbolically undermine freedom of movement and confidence in the rule of law. They also demand and receive international media attention.

The Ataturk attack is most likely meant to send a clear message, most likely that Turkey is not safe. The Ataturk and Brussels attacks also send another message. Protective security measures airside at international airports and on aircraft have, for the most part, reached a level that makes attacks by all but the most highly capable terrorists unlikely.

The next weakest, or vulnerable, physical points in airport security are the arrival and departure halls. So, it's only logical that they're now being targeted. And it would appear that security and airport specialists are yet to find workable new measures to mitigate this risk.

The opening and closing sequences of the cult classic movie Love Actually are set in the arrival hall of Heathrow Airport. Both sequences show the soft vulnerable nature of arrival halls in all its emotional glory.

From Heathrow to Bangkok, from Sydney to Cairo international, arrival halls are filled with people waiting anxiously for family, friends and associates to arrive: and security is at its lowest and most vulnerable. Arrival and departure halls offer the would-be terrorist a couple of benefits. Attacks still have great symbolic value; they are still attacking a symbol of the West. They offer the potential for mass casualties – and a higher proportion of those present at airports are likely to be the affluent and powerful. Finally, there are few if any security measures before check-in or in the crowds of family, friends and touts waiting in arrival halls.

Both the Ataturk and Brussels Airport bombings appear to have been two-stage attacks. The first stages of both were designed to cause injuries but also to cause chaos and draw in first responders at which point the second stage of the attack was commenced.

Following this second phase police and emergency responses to casualties is then slowed down for fear of additional bombs and attacks, increasing the likelihood of fatalities. With the crowds of people in arrival and departure halls, large numbers of wounded and confused were ensured. After these two attacks there will be a temptation to immediately adopt new security measures. After the Brussels attack there were discussions of pushing security checks to the kerb of the airport, prior to check in. But in reality this simply concentrates people in a different location.

After September 11, there was a rush of new air travel security measures that drastically changed air travel experience. New regulations regarding travelling with liquids, identity checks, body scanners and so on have all become part of the contemporary travel experience. It's now time to revisit whether the situation in arrival and departure halls now needs to experience a revolutionary change. The aim of security responses need to focus on reducing the concentrations of people prior to security checks. Similarly, in arrival halls the aim must be reducing the concentrations of uncleared people and goods.

The measures developed to achieve this kind of outcome may once again involve a significant change in the travel experience. The number of loved ones that can be in the arrivals hall may need to be reduced or perhaps how long before a flight they can arrive needs to be established. Potential changes may also impact on those that have commercial interests in arrival halls. Drivers, touts and transfer agents may no longer be able to operate in arrivals halls.

In 2005, Sir John Wheeler did an independent review of airport security and policing in Australia. At the time Wheeler could never have anticipated deadly bikie brawls as seen in 2009 in Sydney, heightened terror threats or mass casualty attacks at airports. In light of this, it's probably time for another independent review of Australia's airport security.

What is clear is that should attacks on airports continue to occur, then security specialists and airport owners will be faced with some difficult choices which, once again, will impact on the travel experience.

Dr John Coyne is the head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Border Security Program.

Published: The Age. 29 June 016

Originally published by: The Age on 29 Jun 2016