Airports Are Blueprints for Safe Cities

Steve Webb, VP, Aerospace, Defense & Security, Frost & Sullivan

Between the numbers of people who pass through, the amenities they serve, and the employment they provide, airports operate much like cities do. But which has more efficient security?

To further grasp the comparison between airports and cities, consider that Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the world's busiest airport in terms of passenger numbers. In 2011, 92,365,860 passengers went through -- an average of over 250,000 per day. Airports such as Heathrow, UK, employ around 66,000 people to support operations. With hotels and additional infrastructure part of the airport terminal, airports are effectively cities -- and substantial ones at that. In many ways, they operate like a city centre, attracting commuters and employees at peak times, offering food and entertainment and a place to sleep. Critical infrastructure, such as energy, water, and transportation, is required and needs protection.

However, one key difference from cities is the threat profile of airports. Flights and airports themselves are vulnerabile to terrorism, and high profile examples making the news annually -- from the Moscow Airport, to Glasgow, to the 9/11 flights -- necessitate a heightened level of security. If people don't feel safe, they won't fly (though statistically it's safer to fly than drive... but that's another story).

With airports operating like businesses with an eye on customer satisfaction, getting people through security checks and border control is a key performance indicator. What also makes airports different from cities is that they are not slowed down by needing multiple agencies to agree on a citywide surveillance program. High threat levels, fast decision making, big budgets, and a focus on customer satisfaction all contribute to airports being a hotbed of new security innovation. I find myself asking, "When and how will this technology trickle down and become embedded in the urban context?"

Integration of security systems across the airport drives improved collaboration between authorities. Fusing data from cyberspace, baggage handling, and planes, amongst other data sources, provides all stakeholders (including border police, immigration, intelligence agencies, customs, airport control towers, etc.) with better intelligence and situational awareness. TheTASS project, part of the EU Seventh Framework Programme, provides a working example of an airport security system and a clue to the future of city safety.

Focusing on customer satisfaction, airports are increasing their focus on improving the passenger experience. The goal is for people to walk into the airport, pass straight through border control and security checks, and enter into a world of shops and restaurants. Significant strides are being made (in spite of the performance of some government agencies... I'll mention no names to avoid being stuck when I next fly). License Plate Readers to check cars on the approach to airports, behavioral analytics, improved biometric performance, and advances in body scanners all contribute to a clearer assessment of potential terrorist threats, resulting in a swifter check-in and safer flights.

Such technology that does not restrict personal mobility will see an increase in applications. The city is an obvious next step. For example, Madrid and London have highlighted that rail infrastructure is a potential terrorist target. In 10 years it may be possible we'll see body scanners, biometrics, and behavioral analytics deployed at the turnstiles of your local underground station. Football stadiums, shopping centres, and tourist attractions like the London Eye are all venues that can be made safer through security technology. The key is getting the balance right -- applying the right balance of technology based on a thorough risk assessment.

Time will tell how quickly lessons from airports are applied elsewhere.

Steven Webb is the Vice President of Aerospace, Defence and Security at Frost & Sullivan