Securing airports from attacks: Is it mission impossible?

“What has changed in recent years is the suicide
element. That’s difficult to counter, if people are willing
to blow themselves up”.
These are the words of Norman Shanks, who used to run
security at Britain’s biggest airports.
He was in charge at Heathrow during the Lockerbie
bombing. At the time, he says they moved security checks to
outside the terminal, thinking it would be safer.
But, he says, they soon realised that they were just moving
the problem outside.
“If anything it was less safe, because we had large groups of
passengers bunched together on pavements, which made
them vulnerable”.
Essentially, anywhere you get people gathering in large
numbers is a target no matter how many police you have
More on the attack in Istanbul
Passengers take cover
So how to stop attacks on airports? Mr Shanks says the best
ways are intelligence, in other words, knowing about it in
advance, face recognition systems that can use CCTV to pick
out suspects, and teaching staff how to identify odd
For example, he says the main thing he noticed about the
Brussels airport attackers was that they weren’t carrying
hand luggage.
“No one travels like that these days, quite the opposite.” For
him, that would have raised alarm bells.
Airport security has become much tighter in recent years.
We’ve all noticed the shoe checks and liquid limits, both of
which came about after planned attacks that were foiled,
one involving a bomb in a shoe and the other, liquid
explosives. Scanners are better too.
But Norman Shanks says that security checks on workers
should still be tighter at some airports around the world.
“I’m still concerned about the insider threat,” he says,
“weaknesses with staff smuggling things on board,” although
workers across Europe are security-checked.
Even our airplane food is sealed before it reaches the
airport. If the seals are broken, it’s not allowed in.
I ask Mr Shanks if he feels that attackers are moving away
from the actual aircraft, hijackings, bombings and towards
the airports instead.
“I don’t think so, it’s just another opportunity.” he says. “We
still had the Metrojet bombing.”
It’s widely believed a Metrojet airliner travelling from Egypt
to Russia last year was brought down by an improvised
But in some ways, he thinks that the Turkey attack was
nothing to do with flying.
“I don’t actually see this as an attack on aviation. They have
just picked a place where people gather together, a soft
target. It could be a shopping mall next time, or a railway