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Baggage claim one of ‘most vulnerable’ areas of airport, experts say

Although details of the shooting that left at least five dead at Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport Friday are still evolving, aviation security experts said it occurred in a particularly difficult area of an airport to fortify.

According to the Associated Press, the suspect is believed to have flown into Ft. Lauderdale on Friday afternoon with a firearm legally stored in his checked baggage. Upon landing, he allegedly went into a bathroom and unpacked the gun before opening fire on passengers waiting for their luggage.

TSA regulations allow passengers to fly with guns if they are secured in checked bags, unloaded, and kept in cases that are not easy to open.

“You may transport unloaded firearms in a locked hard-sided container as checked baggage only,” TSA instructions state. “Declare the firearm and/or ammunition to the airline when checking your bag at the ticket counter. The container must completely secure the firearm from being accessed. Locked cases that can be easily opened are not permitted.”

Firearm parts and ammunition can also be carried in checked bags, but ammunition must be securely boxed.

Anthony Roman, CEO of Roman & Associates, said baggage claim is “one of the most porous, most vulnerable areas” of an airport where very little security is in place.

Jeff Price, a professor of aviation management at Metro State University of Denver, said existing airport security measures could do little to prevent the scenario described in the latest reports.

“Really the only thing that could stop somebody from doing that would be law enforcement right there in the baggage area that sees the guy do it,” he said.

Price noted similarities between this incident and a terrorist attack on Lod Airport in Tel Aviv in 1972, when three gunman stepped off an arriving flight and pulled rifles and grenades from their bags in the waiting area, killing 26. The motive for Friday’s shooting remains unknown.

According to Price, airports need a “comprehensive strategy” that includes both visible law enforcement and plain-clothed officers watching for suspicious activity to deter violence.

“It’s really about having visible law enforcement in the area,” he said. “People are less likely to commit a crime if they see police officers standing there.”

Terrorists and mass shooters generally do not want to attract law enforcement attention right away, he explained. They want to do as much damage as possible before officers arrive on the scene.

The gunman reportedly was on an incoming flight, but Sen. Marco Rubio noted on CNN Friday that nothing is stopping an attacker from walking into baggage claim at a U.S. airport with a gun from outside.

“Protecting a public area is one of the hardest things security and law enforcement ever do,” Price said.

More “draconian” measures could be implemented, but he is skeptical that they can solve the problem. For example, he said placing a security checkpoint outside the terminal would not eliminate the risk; it would just relocate it.

“Wherever you put that screening location, you’re still going to have a public area you have to protect… All it does is move the location where the attack is going to happen,” he said.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, aviation security has often been designed to prevent attacks against aircraft, which historically are more likely targets than terminals.

“We’ve been focused on protecting the airplanes for so long, we’ve…forgotten the rest of the airport needs protection too,” Price said.

Roman pointed to Israel as an example where a multi-layered airport security strategy he referred to as “security in depth” is in place without interfering with the flow of traffic and passengers through the area.

“All areas of the airport should have some level of protection of armed security,” he said.

He suggested armed security agents—either police, TSA agents, Homeland Security officers, or trained private security—be stationed outside the airport to scan passing vehicles for suspicious behavior and activity.

According to Roman, there should be another level of security at every entrance to the terminal watching for things like unusually heavy baggage or people looking nervous.

He believes airport security officers are trained well enough for this, but they lack sufficient personnel to perform these tasks. Staffing and training on the scale this security overhaul would require would be similar to the challenge encountered in establishing the TSA.

Even if airports got on board with a “security in depth” model, Roman said it would be pricey and it could take two to three years of refinement to get it working effectively.

The problem with the Israel comparison, he acknowledged, is that Israel has one major international airport while the U.S. has thousands of airports of various sizes spread across the country.

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