Public areas of airports seen as most vulnerable

2017-01-08 21:00
A traveller, Dan Kovacs, sorts out his luggage at the Fort Lauderdale airport. (Kelli Kennedy, AP)

A traveller, Dan Kovacs, sorts out his luggage at the Fort Lauderdale airport. (Kelli Kennedy, AP)

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Atlanta - In a post-9/11 world, American airports have taken all sorts of steps to keep travellers safe. But significant vulnerabilities remain.

The attack that killed five people at the Fort Lauderdale airport on Friday raised concerns about how to further protect travellers and what place firearms have in US airports.

Authorities say Iraq war veteran Esteban Santiago flew to Fort Lauderdale from Alaska, retrieved a handgun from his checked luggage, went to a bathroom to load it and then returned to the baggage claim area to open fire.

Baggage claim

"There's no question we need to review not only the question of whether people should be able to travel with their firearms even if they're in checked baggage, but I think we need to take a hard look at the security around baggage claim areas and not just leave it at that," said US Rep Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, whose district includes the airport.

Transportation security and law enforcement experts say the baggage claim area remains one of the most vulnerable parts of the airport. Security is lighter and large numbers of people quickly move in and out.

Chris Grollnek, a former law enforcement officer who specialises in security issues, especially involving active shooter situations, said: "What went wrong on Friday is that baggage claim is the softest of soft targets. I mean an elementary school is harder to get into than a baggage claim at an airport."

Indeed, he notes, it's more difficult to get out of the baggage claim area where at least a minimal security presence screens people leaving to make sure they haven't taken someone else's luggage than it is to enter the area.

After virtually every terror attack or attempted attack, authorities have issued new restrictions: requiring passengers to remove their shoes to expose any explosive material and limiting the amount of liquid in carry-on bags. But experts say the public areas of an airport remain vulnerable, because the focus of security is devoted to screening passengers to keep their flights safe.

Just in the past year suicide bombers targeted ticket and terminal areas in Brussels and Istanbul, Turkey.

Government meetings

The only way to prevent such attacks, Grollnek and other experts said, is to ensure the wrong people don't get guns and to encourage the general public to alert authorities if they believe a friend or family member is acting erratically. He likened it to farmers who were enlisted in the Civil Air Patrol to spot potential illegal activity while they were in the air in crop dusters.

Florida is one of six states that restrict firearms at the airport, declaring it a "gun-free" zone, along with schools and government meetings.

Before the shooting, state legislators sought to relax those restrictions, arguing they prevent people from protecting themselves from attack. Opponents of those efforts, said having guns there would make them more dangerous.

Gun-free zones at airports still allow travellers to bring their firearms to the airport to be checked and then retrieve it once they land.


Read more on:    us  |  aviation  |  security

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