Increased airport security: Are airports buying it?

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Thursday, May 1, 2003

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says it will spend $4.5 billion on explosive detection and passenger screening at the nation’s 400 plus commercial airports. But what about the airports themselves? Have they increased their investment in facility and perimeter security since the terrorist incidents on September 11th? While these incidents were the impetus for investments in additional manpower, parking lot modifications and policy/procedural changes, physical security investments took a back seat. That is all about to change.

Market is opening up

Airports have held off on physical security projects for a number of reasons. First, they’ve been waiting to see what standards the federal government would set. These standards aren’t expected anytime soon. Second, the TSA has no mandate when it comes to physical security at airport facilities. This remains the responsibility of the local airport authority.

As airports begin to realize they can no longer wait, they have begun moving forward with security projects. Airports in Los Angeles, Atlanta and San Antonio are testing facial recognition technology. Little Rock, Ark., and Pittsburgh are testing biometrics fingerprint readers. Chicago’s Midway Airport is installing a labyrinth of video surveillance cameras and digital video recorders.

How is the Market Broken Down?

There are just over 19,000 airports in the United States. Of these, 438 are commercial airports, receiving scheduled passenger service. These represent the largest market opportunity. The remaining airports are used exclusively for general aviation, which includes charters and private aircraft.

Airports are owned and operated by government entities. This requires an expanded sell cycle, which could take from three months to two years.

Strict procurement ordinances/requirements are also an impediment. For instance, most local governments require every contract to include a minimum number of Minority Business Enterprises. Additional challenges include operating system and database standards, and integrating with existing infrastructure and technologies.

In addition to these issues, most state and local governments are having budgetary woes due to the sluggish economy. Almost all of the commercial airports are self-supported and do not require taxpayer dollars to operate.

Unfortunately, they are subsidized by the airlines, which are struggling financially. Politicians are exacerbating the problem by enforcing budgetary restraints across the board, regardless of whether revenues come from taxpayers or elsewhere.

Around the Corner

More than ever, there is a need for security services and technology in the airport industry. As airport executives look for ways to make their facilities more secure, they are beginning to consider perimeter security, intrusion detection, digital video recording and biometric authentication.

Large, international airports are ahead of the curve. They have had security systems in place for close to a decade. Their staffs are well versed in the technology and have expertise in place. While it would be a marketing and revenue bonanza to win a contract with one of these airports, marketing dollars would be better spent on smaller airports, which represent the best revenue potential. They have capital, they are being pressured by the federal government to increase their security systems and, in most cases, there is less bureaucracy when it comes to purchasing decisions.

General aviation airports are low on revenue and lacking in security technology. Still, there are some opportunities for systems integrators. A low-cost solution tailored for their airport would be well received. Cameras and a DVR would suffice as a small, but effective security tool.

Airports shouldn’t wait for feds

The airport industry is tech-savvy and more advanced than most. They understand technology and are looking for systems that will complement the job of making airports safer. This includes integration, open systems, low maintenance and high customer support.

There are opportunities out there for you, but companies need to reach out to the industry. Sustained, proactive outreach is the best way to get the end-users’ attention. End-users, educated on new technology, are more likely to push forward with security improvement agendas.

The threats to this strategy are strictly economical and bureaucratic. The airlines (and ultimately the airports) need to continue generating revenues to ensure continued investment in security technology. And the airports need to stop waiting for the federal government to act and start moving forward on capital improvement projects related to airport security.

More good news than bad

The good news is that there are a large number of airports generating revenue and in need of security. The not so good news is that they are having budget shortfalls, airlines are floundering and airport executives are gun shy and waiting for federal direction (which will probably never come for access control and video).

Still, the aviation industry has proven time and again to be a reliable consumer of high-tech products. In this era of terrorist attacks and threat assessments, a controlled and targeted market strategy should yield significant results.

John Becker is director of aviation business for Software House and American Dynamics, Tyco Fire & Security companies. He has more than 11 years experience in airport security technology and operations at large and mid-size airports.