Istanbul attack aftermath: Where are airports’ weakest links?

People wait in a security line operated by the Transportation Security Administration at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City.
U.S. airports ramp up security after Istanbul attack
02:22 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Insiders are the biggest threat to airport safety, say experts

Turkey and Tel Aviv use two layers of screening -- the United States does not

CNN  — 

Istanbul Ataturk Airport has much tighter security than many other airports around the world – but it still wasn’t enough to stop terrorists from killing dozens of people on Tuesday.

Usually, passengers departing from Ataturk Airport must undergo two instances of X-ray screenings. A vehicle checkpoint is also stationed about 500 meters from the international terminal.

The international arrival hall however, does not have this same level of security – and is where two of the three suicide bombers are believed to have entered the building.

READ MORE: How did attackers get past security?

How does this setup compare to airports around the world – and where are some of the soft spots when it comes to aviation security?

Security barriers

When it comes to security barriers, does location really make a difference?

“If you go to some other airports in more dangerous parts of the world – such as in Israel, Afghanistan, and Pakistan – you’ll often find that security barriers are quite far outside the actual airport buildings,” said Rafaello Pantucci, director of International Security Studies at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute.

“Even before you get to the building you get your car searched,” he added.

While airports such as Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion have wide security barriers – and a reputation for safety – this also presents its own logistical difficulties.

READ MORE: Ben Gurion: The world’s most secure airport?

“The bigger the perimeter, the more people and resources it requires,” explained Pantucci.

“And if you’re in a hurry, all this security and questioning can get you stuck in a big queue.”

Rafi Ron, former head of security at Ben Gurion Airport, said Tel Aviv’s rigorous approach could be helpful for Istanbul given the high number of terror attacks on Turkey in recent years.

“I think we need to understand that this most recent attack is an escalation,” he said.

“Both because Istanbul airport is considered much more secure than the Brussels airport or other Western European airports. And secondly, as we can see, the attack was very well planned.”

Jeff Price, author of “Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats,” was cautious about the effectiveness of far-reaching barriers in preventing attacks.

“If they move the check point from inside the building to closer to the curb, all that does is relocate the area where people can be attacked,” he said.

Road blocks

Cement bollards, the thick, waist-high pillars you see outside the doors of many public buildings now, can also be an effective way of preventing car bombs from entering buildings – though less successful in stopping suicide bombers on foot.

“In the case of the Glasgow 2007 attack (in which a car loaded with explosives was driven into the doors of Glasgow Airport), barriers stopped the car getting into the terminal building,” explained Price.

“So they’re effective for stopping one particular type of attack – and not another.”

Inside jobs

Many experts say the biggest threat to airport security is “insiders” – the staff working within the grounds.

“These are people helping others get into the airport, or getting devices and explosives in,” Pantucci said.

Istanbul Ataturk Airport

  • – 11th busiest airport in the world (2015)
  • – Europe’s third busiest airport (2015)
  • – ~62 million passengers passed last year
  • – There are two main passenger terminals
  • – Terminal 1: older, smaller, domestic
  • – Terminal 2: newer, bigger, international
  • – Vehicle checkpoint at compound entrance
  • – X-ray checkpoint at terminal entrance
  • – The airport is roughly 15 miles from the city
  • Source: Airports Council International/CNN

    “If you think back to the attacks of the bombing of the MetroJet airplane in Egypt, that was clearly the product of an insider,” he said, referring to the plane that crashed over the Sinai in October 2015, killing all 224 people on board.

    Price added that there are “many of us in the industry who believe there needs to be an increase in levels of background checks and vigilance over who works in the system.”

    Double screening

    While both the Istanbul and Tel Aviv airports use a double layer of screening for passengers, this is not standard practice in the United States.

    “It involves screening before you get inside the terminal, and then screening before you go out to the plane,” explained Price.

    “So that’s considered a higher level of security screening – I don’t know any airport in the U.S that has that.”

    READ MORE: How safe are U.S. airports?

    What about the emotional impact on passengers?

    Rather than feeling extra safe, travelers could also feel scared or alarmed by a heavy security presence at airports, said Pantucci.

    “If you want to be in a country that’s open and attractive to tourism, do you really want to have such heavy security at the airport – which is the first thing people are going to see when they arrive?”

    “Their first reaction to your county is, ‘Oh look this is a dangerous place’ – it’s not really the image you want to get.”

    Looking ahead

    Following the Istanbul attack, Price emphasized the importance of reducing bottlenecks of people in public areas of airports.

    “A balance must be obtained between screening passengers for prohibited items, and keeping the screening lines moving, in order to reduce the likelihood of an attack in the public areas,” he said.

    READ MORE: Airport security: Can attacks be prevented?

    Tiffany Ap and Catherine Shoichet contributed to this report