What to consider when securing an airport’s perimeter. It’s more than you think

E. Anthony Incorvati

In May 2015 around 5 p.m., surveillance cameras at Mineta San Jose International Airport in San Jose, California spotted a 20-year-old person entering a restricted area, reported The Mercury News. When airport security personnel approached her, she not only resisted arrest, they found she also wasn’t carrying identification.

At the time, it was the airport’s fifth security breach within a year. A month prior, a young man hopped a perimeter fence at the same airport, crossed the tarmac and crept into the wheel well of a Hawaiian jetliner. These stories should have you, at minimum, asking the following questions:

  1. How does someone simply hop an airport security fence?
  2. Why did airport security fail to identify and apprehend the intruder long before she breached security?
  3. Did airport officials try to prevent future breaches? And, if they did, why did their plan fail?
  4. What type of perimeter defense security solution was the airport using? And why did this system fail to detect the intruder and alert officials on time?
  5. If airport executives chose not to upgrade their facility’s perimeter defenses after the first breach, why did they come to this decision?

These are just a few of the many questions Mineta San Jose International security personnel (and other airport officials around the nation) should have asked in the days following the incident. After all, security breaches are unfortunately common.

Take, for example, this past April when The Daily Sentinel reported that an intruder climbed a fence at the Grand Junction Regional Airport in Grand Junction, Colorado. The trespasser informed officials she had used materials near the first fence to climb over it and then covered barbed wire with sandbags.

This begs us to ask another question: Where was airport security while the woman compromised the facility’s perimeter?

While other zones—such as airport security checkpoints—receive a sizeable amount of mainstream media attention, an airport’s outer defenses are just as vulnerable to breaches and therefore critical to protect.

Natural perimeter defenses aren’t enough to protect airports

Perimeter defense protection is the first layer of resistance between the outside world, Aircraft Operations Area (AOA) and other vital airport operation areas and functions. Sure, some airports take advantage of natural barriers, such as Kansai International Airport, located on an artificial island in Osaka Bay and about 31 miles from Osaka, Japan. However, not all airports are fortunate to have natural barriers for defense. Many are landlocked and located in or near bustling cities. For example, Gibraltar Airport is stretched across a hectic Winston Churchill Avenue in Gibraltar.

Airport security personnel at Gibraltar Airport, and many similar facilities around the world, must be extra vigilant when inspecting their facility’s perimeter.

Airport breaches not only put travelers in danger, they can also be very costly. Time equals money, and an intruder who shuts down a runway—or prevents even a single plane from taking off—could cost the airline thousands (or millions) of dollars in the form of solution repairs and inspections, lost customers, and fines and court fees. It’s crucial to take seriously how well a facility’s current perimeter defense is working, and understand how to upgrade it with the latest security solutions if necessary.

It's important to bolster your airport's perimeter defenses
Poorly constructed airport perimeter defenses make it easy for intruders to enter restricted areas.

Small airports are even more vulnerable than their larger siblings

A recent USA Today article, citing a homeland security report, noted that the Transportation Security Administration has failed to conduct detailed inspections of the nation’s smaller airports since 2009 because it lacks the necessary resources to do so.

The source further reported that if TSA could assess commercial airports “system-wide” it may be better able to evaluate risks to access control security points and perimeters.

However, because the problem is available resources, it could take time before the TSA can conduct comprehensive reviews of every airport. Instead of waiting, smaller airports should initiate their own perimeter protection assessments and invest in security measures to fill in their facility’s safety gaps.

What to consider when bolstering your airport’s perimeter defense

It’s never easy to secure an airport’s perimeter, but it’s made even more difficult when officials implement incorrect security protocols and when professionals fail to install the correct perimeter security solutions.

For example, traditional perimeter protection measures—typically analog solutions or ones that used ground and motion sensors, short distance radar and motion sensitive wires—could not always differentiate between an intruder and a nonthreatening animal or person, such as a nearby pedestrian walking close by. As you can imagine, there always existed a real possibility these solutions would falsely alert airport security personnel or, at minimum, fail to warn employees about threats in a timely manner. This forced officials to follow “bread crumbs” and piece together disjointed stories well after the fact.

Today, many businesses use network video solutions, which not only provide clean, crisp video footage but are more apt to accurately notify employees when they’re needed.

Here’s what to consider when purchasing network security solutions for airport perimeter protection:

1. It takes a team effort to secure a perimeter: The Dallas Fort Worth International Airport’s perimeter stretches 20 miles long. The Denver International Airport’s perimeter runs even longer at nearly 29 miles. That’s a lot of border to guard, and it’s difficult to protect these areas if cameras and access controls systems don’t work in unison.

“String all of the U.S. airport perimeters together,” said Brian Jenkins, director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s National Transportation Safety and Security Center, according to PR Newswire, “and we are approaching the length of the U.S. border with Mexico and security expenditures approaching a billion dollars.”

Unfortunately, many facilities employ solutions that work in isolation, resulting in airport security employees discovering breaches after they’ve happened. It’s imperative to install cameras, solutions and software that work together in harmony.

2. Crime doesn’t sleep: During early morning or evening, a perimeter is extremely vulnerable to criminals who might use low light as a cloak to secretly breach airports. This can be problematic to security personnel who want or need to identify culprits by the color of their attire. In this case, it’s important to use cameras that use specialized lenses and software so the solutions can detect objects and color in high resolution and in poor lighting.

For airports, these types of systems are particularly useful, especially when simply deterring a criminal with a loud horn isn’t enough. In the age of terrorism, it’s imperative airport security or other regulatory bodies immediately discern who the perpetrator is or, at the very least, identify characteristics so personnel can locate the suspect in short work.

3. Don’t waste money on faulty security solutions: A 2015 report, Global Airport Security Technology Market Assessment, found that despite the rapid rise in airport security market earnings ($8 billion in 2014) and spending on airport security measures ($69 million in 2012, according to Aviation Pros, citing National Defense Magazine), some airports are struggling to update their perimeter defense because of tight budgets.

Airport officials who are operating with little financial wiggle room must install the right perimeter protection solution. In a recent incident, reported the New York Daily News, a man climbed an 8-foot fence at the John F. Kennedy International Airport after his watercraft ran out of fuel and ran across two runways to ask airport employees for assistance. Critics ridiculed JFK airport because its $100 million perimeter protection security system failed to detect the intruder and warn airport security officers in time.

How can airports solve these types of problems? Simple: Install a security solution that provides a higher degree of detection and tracking capabilities in multiple environments and situations.

A recent Associated Press report, according to Fox News, found that since 2012 intruders breach airport perimeters once every 10 days.  Simply installing higher fencing isn’t good enough. A person who scales a 9-foot fence will likely have little problem climbing over one that is raised to 10 or even 15 feet. What is needed is a suite of integrated solutions that can protect every inch of a miles-long perimeter no matter the time of day or night, and weather or environmental conditions.

Finally, it’s important to consider installing solutions that employees can use remotely. Personnel who can operate a perimeter defense solution on their phone or laptop while in the breakroom sipping their morning coffee suddenly become just as essential to an airport’s perimeter protection as those who are observing monitors in a control room.

Protecting an airport’s perimeter is difficult. However, by recognizing and understanding its complexities, professionals can stay away from using the wrong solutions and instead opt for comprehensive systems that fit their airport’s specific needs.