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Securing Our Airports Against Terror

Friday, 22 February 2013 - 3:39pm IST | Agency: DNA

Watching the news reports in the aftermath of the Hyderabad blasts, I learnt last night that the nation was now on "high alert" against plausible additional terror attacks. And I could not help but wonder what this entailed and how it changed the way we operate things when not on "high alert".

In taking my flight to Bangalore from Delhi the next day, I found a couple of my answers. Having been lodged at the Connaught Place high security area since yesterday, I did not quite see much difference to the way the traffic moved, nor with the way the police patrolled the streets or not.

Reaching and entering the Delhi airport, I did not really see much of a difference from the way it was any other day and today. Unlike the US, there were no special announcements in the airport proclaiming, "the security level is now at orange. Passengers are requested to report any unidentified baggage to the security immediately. We are at code orange."

That is of course how the US operates – keeping its citizens on a constant state of alert (and panic), and I am not even sure if we in India even have a traffic light system for terror attack awareness.

To be frank, I had forgotten about the high alert state we were supposed to be following all through entering the airport, checking in, and getting through the security. I even caught something to eat and drink with no problems!

It was only as I reached the Gate 17 to board my flight that I was suddenly reminded of the high alert. My boarding card was signed through by the airline staff, and the CISF guy double-checked it too before letting me pass through the boarding gate.

And there they were: two uniformed personnel doing their job to ensure the high alert status was complied with! The first burly person - an airline staff took my boarding pass and stamped it with a small round seal. It read: "IGA DEL-SEC CHECKED 2". And best of all, he had not even given a second glance at me or the hand luggage I was lugging.

It was not over yet though. Just as I was boarding the airport shuttle to board the flight, a second leaner airline "security personnel" stopped me and waved his handheld metal detecting magic wand around me before letting me through.

I could not help but tell him, "if you find anything on me now that I am not supposed to be having, we are doing things hopelessly wrong". If it makes a difference, I said that most politely and with a smile.

Now here's why we do have to re-look at the way our airports are run, especially from the security perspective.

The only thing that the CISF personnel check when a person enters the airport is if that person is a valid passenger. And once you have established that fact - thankfully now they accept digital display of tickets on smartphones and other devices - you are let through.

You head in straight to the airline counters to establish your identity yet again and claim your boarding pass. Most new airports have done away with the need to manually scan your check-in baggage and have adopted international standards of automated checks.

There is no problem with that. The problem is our system currently lets in anybody to walk in with anything that they want in huge bags into airports with the most minimal of checks - not even a metal detector!

I do not really understand the need to establish passenger credentials as much as there is a need to check the contents of baggage as one enters the airport. Even railway stations and other public places like malls, cinemas and event grounds have realised this fact and run people through a basic metal detector.

Yet at our airports we are more keen to stop non-passengers from walking in, rather than make much-necessary arrangements to secure them further. The first need could be solved easily by implementing a railway-like platform ticket, the second needs a re-look at the way things are currently run.

Post the check-in formalities, one steps through the rather detailed, robust security check - truly comparable with anywhere else in the world. The hand baggage is scrutinised in full detail, shoes asked to be removed where deemed necessary, and the person given a professional scanning (and frisked too).

As robust as the scan and check at this security checkpoint is, there may indeed be a remote possibility that somebody may smuggle something through. I don't see how that could be, but clearly the plausibility cannot be overlooked.

Yet, I simply fail to understand the logic that the authorities think it can be stopped by a secondary superficial and comic check by the airlines. Let us not make a mockery of the situation by trusting the airline staff with finding concealed objects of terror; allow them to do the job they are meant to, and let the CISF do what they are trained to be good at.

If at all the CISF check has any element of doubt, arm and equip them enough to ensure 101% accuracy. Do all you can and more to enable the CISF to do the job they are entrusted with. Let's help them secure our airports.