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Keeping Fear at Bay: European Airport Security

3 minute read
John Moody

Exactly ten minutes after terrorist attacks at the Rome and Vienna airports the morning of Dec. 27, the news flashed to Athens international airport, where a scheduled flight of Israel’s El Al airline was preparing for takeoff. Moments later, a police dragnet began searching for possible terrorists. For the much criticized Athens facility, where Shi’ite extremists last June boarded TWA Flight 847 before hijacking it to Beirut, times had changed.

Although no terrorist incident occurred, Greek authorities rounded up dozens of Palestinians in Athens for interrogation and deported seven who were carrying false passports. The Greek Foreign Ministry took the unprecedented step of barring all Palestinians from entering the country without special permission. Despite the deft performance, Airport Commander George Papadimitropoulos insisted that there are limits to airport security. Said he: “Can you imagine a Greek family, mother, aunt, grandma, uncles, who came to see off their son, being told they can’t go in?”

Such draconian restrictions could well become commonplace. Across Western Europe last week, special precautions went into effect in response to the Rome and Vienna bloodbaths. Austrian officials strengthened the special antiterrorist unit that guards Vienna’s Schwechat Airport but ruled out isolating the El Al check-in area in a remote corner of the airport because, as one spokesman put it, the airline did not want to operate in “a ghetto.” Highly visible armed police patrolled El Al check-in areas at Frankfurt, Munich and Paris airports. Passengers on the twice-weekly El Al flight between Tel Aviv and Madrid, which is said to be a likely target for terrorists, were questioned about their reasons for traveling to Israel. At Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Airport and Britain’s Manchester airport, workers staged strikes to demand even stricter security. Some measures have gone unpublicized. Said an Air France official: “If everyone talks about it, it is no longer security, is it?”

In the violence-prone Middle East, the Cairo airport is a virtual armed camp. Only ticketed passengers are admitted to the terminal. Steel barriers separate check-in counters from the rest of the building, which is under constant guard. Passengers undergo three passport checks. Hand luggage is searched, and checked baggage must be identified. Passengers are patted down before being bused to their planes. A final inspection is conducted at the aircraft door.

Increasingly there is widespread admiration for the airtight airport security in Israel. Although time-consuming precautions breed jokes that El Al stands for “Every Landing, Always Late,” the Israeli airline has suffered no hijackings since 1968. Security at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport ranges from piece-by-piece luggage inspection to exhaustive questioning of passengers, who are advised to check in two hours ahead of departure time. On most flights, air marshals with concealed Uzi submachine guns pose as passengers.

In the U.S., security at most major airports has been beefed up since the TWA hijacking. In Tokyo, all approaches to Narita Airport are monitored, and each arriving car, passenger and possession is scrutinized. Nevertheless, local radicals made two attempts to disrupt flight operations last year. Even if airports could be converted into safety vacuums, says Richard Lally, director of security for the Air Transport Association of America, “the threat is always changing. It could be sabotage or hijacking or assault.” It is that chilling uncertainty that places a potentially deadly weapon in the hands of determined terrorists. –By John Moody. Reported by John Borrell/Cairo and Mirka Gondicas/Athens, with other bureaus

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