EXCLUSIVE: Airports – access control all areas

April 21, 2023


Airports are a magnet for threat, but physical security and clever collaboration with IT departments can make a huge difference, as Marcey Tweedie of Morse Watchmans reports

Airport security departments anticipate change and strive to be on-point and prepared as best as possible.

Weather-related storms commonly cause airport closures and grounded flights, yet unpredictable factors demonstrate the complexity of unusual problems that challenge airport security and indefinitely amend existing security policies. Major events in the past two decades that challenged UK airport security.


Terrorism against the US on September 11, 2001, which involved four hijacked planes led by Islamist extremist network al-Qaeda, killed 2,977 innocent people in-flight and on-the-ground including citizens from 77 countries. The indelible shockwaves of this horrific day resulted in stricter and more vigilant security measures at UK airports and airports worldwide that are still strictly enforced today.

A Costly Volcano Eruption

In April 2010, ash clouds from an Icelandic volcano shut down airports, including the UK’s Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, and London City airports. It cost airlines upwards of £1.6bn, according to the Associated Press. In these situations, airport security teams need to watch stranded passengers who may become unruly.

Drones at Gatwick

Hundreds of flights at Gatwick Airport were cancelled in December 2018 which Sussex Police labelled the cause as “a deliberate act of disruption using industrial drones,” according to a BBC article. The drones caused all flights to be grounded at Gatwick due to safety concerns because the drones were invading airport runway airspace. This costly escapade caused over 100,000 passengers to be displaced on inbound and outbound flights. Unanticipated and unnecessary incidents such as this require ramped-up security measures to prevent further potentially harmful acts of disruption that impact airport and passenger safety.

Covid Disrupts UK Airports

Due to the standstill of international travel during COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, The Guardian reported that “the number of passengers travelling through UK airports fell by 223m from 2019 to 2020, an annual decline of 75% because of government-imposed travel bans.” Although travel restrictions were lifted, the pandemic resulted in ongoing airport staffing shortages, causing queues and delays.

Whenever disruptive events such as these occur, airports and the airlines that service them teeter on the brink of healthy profit margins, especially when money is not properly invested into appropriate technology that can significantly help negate revenue loss. Thin red lines of profitability can eventually turn into deep fissures as in the instance of the November 2022 closure of Doncaster Sheffield Airport.

Despite its convenience and popularity, Doncaster Sheffield ceased operations in November 2022 as it was no longer financially viable to remain open with no substantial offers to purchase the airport.

Closures at regional airports also means increased traffic, crowding, and overflow at major airports, such as Heathrow and Manchester.

When there is more crowding at airports, optimising security is paramount to prevent security incidents such as theft, vandalism, terrorism, and cybersecurity breaches. The aim of airport security is to prevent unlawful interference that causes harm to people and property.

Investing in an Airport Security Technology Stack

With staffing shortages and a lack of routine security equipment audits, airports become financially challenged. According to The Genetec Industry Insights Physical Security Trends for 2023: “Ensuring security with fewer staff members is a recipe for burnout.

Team leaders are re-evaluating their technology stack. They want solutions that help them streamline tasks, automate processes, and enhance their team’s efficiency.”

Airport security technology needs multiple platforms that are in sync with each other to maximise efficacy and efficiency.

“The demand for unified physical security solutions, such as access control and security communication technology, will keep growing. Unifying solutions reduces costs through streamlined operations,” according to Genetec’s research trend findings.

Even with staffing shortages, physical security departments can operate efficiently and reduce costs by optimizing technology stack components such as video surveillance, cybersecurity, access control technology, and key control systems when they are integrated and communicating with each other to provide a complete picture of security information at any given time.

Evaluating and upgrading present security technology systems is essential. According to the IFSEC Global 2022 State of Physical Access Control Report, “only 41% of respondents believed their current access control system either met or exceeded their requirements.”

Managing Airport Assets with Access Control Technology

Airport security policies must clearly define how to control access and manage all assets. Electronic physical access control systems (PACS) with access cards and proximity devices are instrumental for controlling larger restricted areas in the concourse and terminal and in other airport areas that allow authorized personnel only.

While examining all areas in airports that use physical key and lock technology, literally hundreds to thousands of keys and locks exist at any airport.

To maximize access control in a technology stack, it is imperative to meld PACS with electronic key control systems, so they are no longer two disparate systems not sharing security intelligence.

When the systems are integrated, the intelligence garnered allows for complete information as to who is accessing larger areas as well as any door or key and lock system that PACS systems do not directly secure. When integrated, the two systems working together provide extra layers of security in the technology stack as they are no longer “siloed” and communicate information with each other always and with instant reporting.

Why Airports Need Key Control Policies

Key control policies define how all airport keys are managed and to whom and for what purposes they are issued. Key control security plans include a detailed accountability chain that applies to all keys issued for airport-owned property, critical systems, as well as establishments owned and operated by the airport.

Some of the areas that require electronic key control include air operations areas; gate and fence access areas and shops and restaurants.

Key control policies require regular audits to verify key usage and accountability for all of them. Regular key audits will ascertain that the keys are being used only by authorized individuals who have legitimate reasons to use them, that the keys are not being duplicated, and that keys and locks are not being altered and changed.

Electronic key control systems release keys only to authorized key users. Programming capabilities allow keys to be released only at specific times to specific users on specific days. The system shows which keys are out, who has them, and when they have been returned. These systems are easy to install without a high installation cost and are easy to use so staff can be trained quickly. The system is also easy to program so that adding or removing users is not complex.

Give airport security teams savvy technology stack tools, let them collaborate with IT departments, and then they reap the benefits to work smarter and not harder to achieve greater operational efficiencies for cost reduction.

Even when security staffing issues arise, electronic key control and integrated components of the security technology stack become automated “security guards” ready to defend all airport access control points and to readily serve and protect airport travelers, personnel, and airport property. Investing in security technology and optimizing each system brings together efficiencies so that profitability can be maximized even during unusual events and changing times. For airports, this means more red-eye flights and fewer red-line profit margins.

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