Airport Safety: Protecting the Journey, Securing the Destination

June 6, 2007

Few building types have undergone as many significant architectural and operational changes in the post-9/11 world as American airports. The geopolitical realities of global terrorism and the economics of the 21st-century aviation industry have converged to create even more security challenges for American air carriers and the agencies that maintain airport facilities. By 2015, 1 billion passengers are expected to fly annually, with 60 percent of them on U.S. domestic flights.

Few building types have undergone as many significant architectural and operational changes in the post-9/11 world as American airports. The geopolitical realities of global terrorism and the economics of the 21st-century aviation industry have converged to create even more security challenges for American air carriers and the agencies that maintain airport facilities. By 2015, 1 billion passengers are expected to fly annually, with 60 percent of them on U.S. domestic flights.

For airline passengers, security enhancements have dramatically altered the overall experience of flying. From restrictions in parking, curbside drop-off, and carry-on luggage to interior circulation, ticketing, screening lanes, and checked-baggage procedures, travelers have come to regard the entire flying experience as another inconvenient truth of modern life. One of the most visible recent trends in airport design is the increase of retail and entertainment components; however, these facilities expand the overall size of the airport, making efficient pedestrian movement another design challenge.

Against this backdrop, the ability to prevent terrorist attacks against airport passengers, facilities, and infrastructure remains increasingly costly and complex. Since 9/11, heightened security and passenger awareness have (so far) effectively prevented terrorist acts onboard American aircraft. But, according to aviation security experts, with planes and flights now fairly well protected, airports and critical infrastructure, as vital iconic American landmarks and economic engines, are the next likely terrorist targets.

Factors Impacting Airport Security
Older airports were not designed for post-9/11 security needs, such as X-ray screening lanes, accommodating many large magnetometers used to screen checked baggage, and required support spaces needed by new technology and additional security personnel. Increased passenger volumes, crowded terminals, air-traffic demands, and the inevitable delays from weather, mechanical problems, threats, and other circumstances, often result in passenger frustration and stressed-out airline employees.

Additionally, the increased price of jet fuel, airline labor issues, and financial solvency have impacted most major U.S. air carriers, forcing them to cut back on personnel, passenger amenities, and implement cost-saving measures in every aspect of their operations, from maintaining on-time departures to getting flight crews where they are most needed. Failure to do so can have dire consequences, as seen by the 2007 resignation of Jet Blue's visionary founder and CEO David Neeleman after several planes were stranded out on the tarmac at JFK during a February winter storm, inconveniencing thousands of passengers nationwide.

Foiled Plot to Destroy Kennedy Airport
In early June 2007, federal officials and the New York Police Department stopped a chilling terrorist plot to destroy Kennedy Intl. Airport and blow up fuel tanks, terminals, planes, fuel lines running beneath the airport from New Jersey, and, thus, neighboring parts of Queens, in New York City. Four men were charged, including a naturalized U. S. citizen who lived in nearby Brooklyn, and was a native of Guyana, in the Caribbean, along with others in Trinidad. As a former JFK cargo handler in the 1990s, the suspect previously had unrestricted access to pipelines and other secure areas, and knew the facility. Although the plan was in early stages, the men had conducted extensive, precise airport surveillance using photos, video, and satellite images downloaded from Google Earth. Fortunately, an informant alerted authorities early on.

As a major world gateway, Kennedy Airport handles over 41 million passengers annually, has 35,000 employees, and generates over 250,000 jobs in the New York metropolitan area. By targeting a major commercial and economic engine, the plot was designed to destroy an American landmark named for President John F. Kennedy, kill thousands of people, and cripple the economy in New York and the United States over the long term. Background checks of airport security personnel, whether for the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or private security companies which supply guards, are another layer of defense against potential threats.

The implications from this plot extend well beyond JFK. Like the May 2007 plot to attack Fort Dix in New Jersey by several young men who lived nearby, terrorists are in the United States, and some are American citizens. Their targets are typically symbols of American democracy, economics, and culture, especially buildings and critical infrastructure.

Building owners, facility managers, design professionals, and allied building-industry personnel must remain aware of the special responsibilities we share in ensuring public safety in the face of ongoing security threats to the built environment, in the United States, and worldwide.


Seeking Innovative Airport Security Solutions
The good news is that the next generation of architects is learning to think about new approaches to airport design. The Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have teamed up once again for a second international airport security student design competition.

The first 2005-06 Student Design Competition, entitled, "Airport. Security. Circulation," received over 500 student entries from nearly 100 universities around the world. The 2007-08 competition will focus on giving new life to Terminal 5 at Dallas-Ft. Worth Intl. Airport (DFW), says Michael J. Monti, PhD, ACSA executive director in Washington, D.C. Through DHS sponsorship, government personnel are hoping that architectural students will develop some out-of-the-box approaches to airport security that seasoned airport managers may not have considered.

Administered by ACSA and sponsored by DHS, the program is intended to challenge students, working individually or in teams, to explore security design issues relating to passenger circulation, cargo handling, and personnel throughout airports. The competition is an opportunity to redefine air travel and re-establish the quality of the future airport experience for travelers.

"The architectural community and the public need to be shown that architectural design can meet necessary security goals without sacrificing aesthetics or user experience," says David M. Chasco, AIA, professor and director of the School of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and chief consultant and design juror on both competitions.

For the 2005-06 competition, students were given a complex space program and asked to address four major functional zones in the airport: ticketing, concourse, baggage claim, and airport operations. These functions create distinctly different, self-sufficient operations, along with specific, integral security concerns. The winning entries can be viewed at (

As one of the 2005-06 competition jurors, along with David Chasco, AIA; Thomas Coleman of DHS; and Randall Ott, AIA, Dean of The School of Architecture and Planning at The Catholic University of America, I was very impressed with the high quality of submissions, as were all the jurors. Preliminary discussions are underway with DFW to modify floorplans and develop competition program materials to provide even greater challenges for the next wave of student entries. I'm looking forward to participating in this worthy, important program once again.

Security Beyond Buildings
As we look ahead to the future of aviation security, this is also a time to look back. July 17, 2007, marks the 11th anniversary of the crash of TWA Flight 800 as it fell to the Atlantic Ocean 9 miles off the Long Island coast, 14 minutes after taking off from JFK Airport. The official explanation for the disaster was a spark in the center fuel tank. Several alternate theories have long been discussed, such as whether the cause was a missile launched from the ocean, global or homegrown terrorism, friendly fire, a bomb, or other scenarios. Nevertheless, 230 lives were lost on a plane that had just left the airport.

Homeland Security extends well beyond the built environment. Monitoring borders, ports, waterfronts, and airspace are vitally important, along with the public resources needed to do the job, especially in areas with the greatest threats, targets, and vulnerabilities.

Even with heightened security measures for aircraft, passengers, baggage, airport terminals, and surrounding critical infrastructure, terrorists will think of new ways to inflict catastrophic damage. It's our collective task to remain vigilant and ensure they are not successful.

Internet Resources
Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture (ACSA)
ACSA/U.S. Department of Homeland Security Student Design Competition winning entries
"4 Charged with Terror Plot at JFK Airport," CNN, June 3, 2007
Wikipedia, John F. Kennedy Intl. Airport
Wikipedia, TWA Flight 800

DeMille, Nelson, Night Fall, (Warner Books, 2004). This gripping thriller centers on the investigation of TWA 800, 5 years after the crash, in 2001. Several alternate theories from the official explanation are explored, such as a missile and cover-up, as a result of DeMille's extensive research.

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