Terrorist attack at Brussels Airport

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The attack at Brussels Airport on 22 March reminded us all that although from a security standpoint, airports are among the most regulated and controlled public spaces in the world, terrorist attacks can still occur.

Aviation-specific security regulations such as Regulation (EC) 300/2008 focus on airside spaces, the non-public spaces of airports accessible only to air passengers who hold a valid boarding pass. These regulations are designed to prevent unlawful interference with air transport – a prominent target of terrorists for several decades. Since 2001, these aviation specific regulations have been harmonised and coordinated at EU level.

Landside spaces, as airport spaces accessible to the general public, are subject to general security regulations enacted by the relevant national authority, and they are no different from any other public space – such as train and metro stations, theatres, etc. They are not subject to a common EU security framework and national authorities must review and adopt appropriate measures to match their specific threat scenario. 

Beyond the airport

In the light of recent events and decisions taken by the Belgian government, national authorities elsewhere in the EU are reviewing their terrorist threat level; a number of them have already increased security measures landside at airports and other key locations. Airports are fully cooperating with these authorities. 

Airports Council International (ACI) Europe, which represents close to 500 airports in 45 European countries, has noted that the possible adoption of additional security measures such as checks on persons and goods entering airport landside spaces is likely not only to be disruptive but could actually create new security vulnerabilities by collecting passengers and airport visitors into spaces not designed for that purpose. This could have the unintended consequence of moving the target rather than securing it. 

American Airlines Group Chief Executive Doug Parker said it was too early to tell if the Brussels attacks would reduce demand for flights, though long airport security lines could discourage customers. “If there’s any lesson from Brussels, it’s that [the attacks] happened outside the secure area where there were large groups of people,” Parker said, making it crucial to get passengers through security as “efficiently as possible”.

The recent atrocities are of course part of a series of attacks over the last few months and before that are not limited to disrupting our transport systems, but seek instead to threaten a way of life by targeting other public spaces including places of social gathering and entertainment. 

The vital role of data & intelligence

Fully securing public spaces through additional security checks is widely believed to be unrealistic, inefficient and ultimately, unachievable, at least consistent with maintaining what would feel like appropriate forms of social gathering. Many agree that the best way forward in the fight against terrorism is to improve further the capabilities for gathering, coordinating and sharing intelligence and all relevant data.

Brussels Airport reopened to a small number of passengers on Sunday, 3 April. The first of three scheduled flights departed for Faro at 1:40pm local time, with about 80 passengers on board. Belgium’s main airport, which handles 23.5 million passengers a year, aims to return to maximum capacity before the start of summer holidays at the end of June.

Gillie Belsham

Gillie Belsham Global Head of Aviation, Joint Head of Energy & Infrastructure, Partner

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