Last week’s twin terrorist attacks brought home once again just how risky travel can be. Just days after the capture of one of the prime suspects of last November’s Paris terrorist attacks in Brussels, that city’s metro line and main airport were the scenes of carnage. Tragically, people travelling domestically or internationally often find themselves the victims of terrorism; in this case 31 innocent lives were lost.
Sadly, it’s not hard to see why terrorists chose these targets. They’re places with high human traffic, which increases the chances of inflicting mass casualties. They’re also highly visible, and in the case of a metro station, are a classic example of what is termed a soft target in security parlance.
By contrast, an airport is generally considered a hard target – in the same category as government buildings and foreign embassies – which tend to have high security that acts as a deterrent to an attack.
But airports are a strange beast, divided into two distinct zones. One is the highly secure inner sanctum that exists beyond the security screening area, the so-called air side, while the other is the almost security free section, where passengers and their families mingle, called the land side.
And as former Travel Weekly news editor and aviation policy expert Justin Wastnage wrote recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, there is a looming battle ahead regarding where the line between the air and land side is demarcated.
Security experts will point out that the Brussels attacks demonstrate just how easy it is for terrorists to walk into a busy arrivals hall unchallenged. But airports are commercial enterprises and as Wastnage wrote “There is a desire from those who run airports to maximise the real estate in terminals by shifting the line between air side and land side line closer to the gate, allowing more passengers and non-travellers to mingle in common areas.”
This of course allows a lot more revenue to potentially be made. But it also offers terrorists an attractive target. The likely outcome is that in future years we will see security screening at airports at the first point of entry. It’s likely to be a less invasive form than the more rigorous screening prior to entering the air side, but it’s the kind that might thwart a suicide bomber, who would otherwise have easy access to the land side of the airport. Body scanning will likely become a normal requirement for entry.
This will mean yet more waiting for you, the consumer. But in my view it’s entirely worthwhile if it means passengers and their loved ones can travel more safely. Terrorists, after all, overwhelmingly choose soft targets to attack.
Wastnage also correctly points out that increased security measures eventually are accepted. “Experience shows us, however, that people get used to the inconvenience and regard it as a price worth paying for their security. The challenge for Australian airports will be to manage the transition.”
And although clearly subject to less scrutiny than Australian airports, Tuesday’s EgyptAir hijacking also demonstrated that boarding a flight wearing a suicide belt (albeit fake in this instance) is still achievable in 2016. This will only encourage would-be terrorists and should sound alarm bells to those charged with protecting airports.
So be patient people, busy travel hubs will be a potential target so long as they’re perceived to be accessible by terrorists. Every extra minute you wait is likely making you a whole lot safer.