Airports alert to terrorist threat after Brussels attack

The twin explosions at the airport on March 22, 2016 were shortly followed by another at a metro station in the centre of the Belgian capital and left about 34 dead and 250 wounded. So-called Islamic State (IS) has said it was behind the attacks and warned that more would follow. But, how can and will the industry react?

The dramatic scenes yesterday morning of travellers cowering for safety and running away from the terminal building at Brussels Airport following two explosions in the check-in area have once again brought aviation security to the attention.  Many are already calling for a rethink on passenger safety at airports and an increased visible security presence has already been introduced in the most at risk countries, but industry bodies have highlighted that much is already being done to dilute the threat and new measures could simply bring more dangers.

The attacks brought chaos to Brussels Airport during its busy morning peak and resulted in all subsequent flights being cancelled and many aircraft that were inbound to the airport being diverted to other points across Europe.  The airport remains closed as it is currently a crime scene and security forces are undertaking forensic investigations, but it is expected to be handed back next week when authorities will assess the damage and decide when full or even just partial operations can resume.  Brussels Airport officials have confirmed the airport will remain closed until at least March 28, 2016.

Over 1,500 flights have already been cancelled, with just 100 arrivals and departures taking place during the morning of March 22, 2016 before the attacks, with around 50 being diverted to other airports, data from air traffic management provider, Eurocontrol highlighted.   Around 650 flights are scheduled at Brussels Airport each day.

Some airlines are already scheduling larger equipment on routes into other airports, particularly Amsterdam to support the increased demand from the flight cancellations, while others are switiching to other airports.  Examples include Jet Airways operating 'rescue' flights from Amsterdam, Aegean Airlines and easyJet serving Lille in northern France, while Air Europa has started serving the Belgium airport of Liege instead of Brussels. 

Elsewhere, low-cost carrier Ryanair has temporarily moved its Brussels operation to Charleroi Airport, where it already has a notable presence, and Air Arabia is also using the airport.  From March 24, 2016 Brussels Airlines has started substituting part of its network from Brussels with flights from Antwerp and Liege, although the size of these airports mean its network is limited to short-haul operations with A319/A320 equipment flying from Liege and its Avro RJ fleet from Antwerp.

The twin explosions at Brussels Airport were shortly followed by another at a metro station in the centre of the Belgian capital and left about 34 dead and 250 wounded. So-called Islamic State (IS) has said it was behind the attacks and warned that more would follow.  But, how can and will the industry react? 

“terrorists will never succeed in destroying the fundamental urge and right of people to travel, explore and learn about the world.”

Tony Tyler
DG & CEO, IATA

ACI Europe, the European region of Airports Council International (ACI), and which represents close to 500 airports in 45 European countries said that when considering the impact the attack will have on security at airports, it is appropriate to consider what is already in place.

“The events in Brussels have shocked and saddened the entire European airport community. In light of today’s events and in the wake of decisions taken by the Belgian government, national authorities elsewhere in the EU are reviewing their terrorist threat level and a number of them have already increased security measures landside at airports and other key locations. Airports are fully cooperating with these authorities,” it said in a statement.

From a security standpoint, airports are among the most regulated and controlled spaces and aviation-specific security regulations currently focus on the airside spaces (non-public spaces of airports accessible only to air passengers who hold a valid boarding pass).

“These regulations are designed to prevent unlawful interference with air transport – a prominent target of terrorists for several decades. Since 2001, these aviation specific regulations have been harmonised and coordinated at EU level,” noted ACI Europe.

Landside spaces (airport spaces accessible to the general public) are subject to general security regulations enacted by national authorities, as they are no different from any other public space – such as train and metro stations, theatres, department stores, museums, etc. They are not subject to a common EU security framework. “It is therefore up to these national authorities to review and adopt appropriate measures, matching their specific threat scenario,” explained ACI Europe in its statement.

However, the professional airports association underlined that the possible adoption of additional security measures such as checks on persons and goods entering airport landside spaces could be disruptive and actually create new security vulnerabilities.

“By displacing the gathering of passengers and airport visitors to spaces not designed for that purpose – such measures would essentially be moving the target rather than securing it,” it said.

“It is worth keeping in mind that the atrocities committed today are part of a series of attacks that have hit several locations in the past six months including Paris, Ankara and Istanbul. These attacks are not limited to disrupting our transport systems, but are clearly about threatening our entire way of life by targeting other public spaces including places of social gathering and entertainment,” it added.

“Aviation is a force for good. It brings the world together and fosters greater understanding of people and cultures. Those who commit terrorist acts know and fear this, and it is why air travel is so often a target.”

Tony Tyler
DG & CEO, IATA

The organisation said that ultimately, fully securing public spaces through additional security checks would be “unrealistic and inefficient” and suggested the best way forward in the fight against terrorism is to “step up capabilities for the gathering, coordination and sharing of intelligence and data”.

Tony Tyler, the director general and chief executive officer at the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents some 260 airlines comprising 83 percent of global air traffic, also noted that more questions will be asked about airport security and passenger safety on the aviation system.

“Questions of airport security will surely arise,” he said. “The safety and security of our passengers and employees is always top priority. The aviation industry will continue to work closely with governments as they fulfill their responsibility to protect their citizens from evil acts with well-thought-out and coordinated measures.”

In a defiant statement Tyler said innocent people have been “senselessly murdered in an attack on our humanity,” but noted that “terrorists will never succeed in destroying the fundamental urge and right of people to travel, explore and learn about the world.”

“Aviation is a force for good. It brings the world together and fosters greater understanding of people and cultures. Those who commit terrorist acts know and fear this, and it is why air travel is so often a target,” he added.