Following the tragic death of at least 34 people and hundreds of injuries as a result of terrorist attacks in the de facto EU capital of Brussels today, questions are yet again being posed about travel security procedures around the globe. In addition to an explosion at the Maelbeek metro station, three bombs were brought into Brussels International Airport (BRU), two potentially strapped to suspected suicide bombers and a third suitcase bomb that failed to detonate.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for these atrocities, though an Iraqi intelligence official told the Associated Press that Iraqi officials informed European countries that attacks at airports and train stations were planned for at least two months. If this intelligence is true, what more could the security services have done to prevent such an act of terror?
Back in the 1960s, an airport was seen as a glamorous place. There was a romance to be enjoyed; after all, getting there was half the fun. Since the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC, when we were reminded that aircraft can be used as weapons of mass destruction, the aviation industry had to change tact. Cockpit doors were secured, passengers removed their shoes and full body scanners were widely deployed.
But modern warfare has no rules, no boundaries and no conscience. And it seems that with all the surveillance, intelligence and military equipment that the West possesses, it isn’t enough to prevent a lone gunman, or in this case multiple terrorists disguised as holidaymakers, from murdering innocent people for their own unimaginable cause. Busy public spaces such as airports, train stations and tourist landmarks make easy targets for those wishing to do us harm.
BRU is a major European hub with three active runways and more than 23 million passengers passing through each year. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines operate service to BRU. Located close to the EU Parliament headquarters, BRU is an airport used daily by dignitaries, journalists and VIPs; it saw 240,000 aircraft movements last year. It is perhaps not surprising that Brussels was targeted, especially as the Paris bombers were found to be living in Belgium, including the alleged ringleader Salah Abdeslam, a Belgian born French national who was captured alive by Police just last week after a shootout. The man is believed to be the last surviving participant in the 13 November 2015 Paris attacks, which killed 130 people and wounded hundreds.
Today is a day many people would rather forget, but BRU security – and more broadly all transportation security – will be pulled into focus even more as a result with myriad questions asked. For instance, at what point does the airport perimeter and arrivals hall become as secure as the security channel itself? Will we reach a point where airports relinquish the additional revenue born of restaurants, cafes and shops just inside the terminal building; will people without a valid ticket get turned away at the car park? Will visiting the airport to say “hello” or “goodbye” to loved ones become a thing of the past?
One thing is for certain, in the modern world it’s not enough just to rely on the public to be vigilant in vulnerable public buildings like airports and train stations. We need to know that everyone is fully playing their part, and that means investment.
Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO union in the United States, verbalized the same, saying in a statement today that the attacks in Brussels serve as a reminder that the transportation system as a whole remains a tempting target for terrorist elements both in the US and abroad. “Frontline transportation employees need better training to identify threats and respond to attacks, transportation assets must be better secured and the TSA workforce must be given the tools and support they need to do their jobs,” he said.
Indeed, we need countries and airport operators to work together to invest more heavily in keeping people safe from the moment we arrive, by car, rail or bus. In a final thought, the last time this author visited Amsterdam Schiphol airport (famously one of the best hubs in Europe), my hand baggage wasn’t screened until I got to the actual departure gate. Whilst it sped up the security process and makes transiting Schiphol so pleasant, it also enabled me to get right to the jetway with the aircraft in sight before me or my luggage were scrutinized by security staff.
Whatever the future of airport security, our immediate thoughts must lie with the loved ones of the 34 people killed in today’s blasts, and those suffering from injuries as a result of this horrific tragedy.