Airports Retool to Face New Security Threats

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After last week's thwarted terrorist attack in London, airports across the country scrambled to incorporate new security measures into their operations. One airport goal is security, while another is to retain profitable retail space.


Any day now, Homeland Security officials are expected to finalize new rules governing carry-on bags. These rules changes come after last week's terror alert, and they follow up on many changes at airports since the September 11 attacks. Some airports are able to accommodate these changes better than others.

NPR's Adam Davidson reports on how the design of an airport can make a huge difference in airport security.

ADAM DAVIDSON reporting:

Last Thursday was a rough day for a lot of airports. There were sudden and confusing new rules about carrying liquids on flights. But at Indianapolis Airport, all problems were solved quickly says John Kish, a manager there.

Mr. JOHN KISH (Manager, Indianapolis Airport): We ended up needing to buy a bunch of tables so that people could repack without laying on the floor, and then a number of trashcans that are designed to hold liquids. And things worked remarkably well.

DAVIDSON: Kish says there is one big word these days in airport management: flexibility. Indianapolis Airport is built in such a way that it was easy to lay out some tables and trashcans and completely rearrange the security area. Not all airports are like that.

For example, parts of Reagan National outside Washington, D.C. have narrow, fixed entranceways to the terminals - which means that security is pretty much always overcrowded because there's not enough space to accommodate all the post-9/11 equipment. Indianapolis Airport started preparing for greater flexibility right after the World Trade Center was attacked.

Mr. PAT ASKEW (Architect): Yeah, it was October of '01, I believe. So it was right after September 11.

DAVIDSON: Architect Pat Askew is leading the design team for Indianapolis's new terminal. He's with the firm HOK. And he says since 9/11, airport design has one primary aim: to accommodate whatever security changes might come up in the coming years and decades.

Mr. ASKEW: It really has to do with making sure that there are not permanent sort of immovable objects in your way, short of basic columns and roofs and all that.

DAVIDSON: Askew put the plumbing under the floor and not through walls so that bathrooms could be moved quickly. He didn't use any internal walls to bear the weight of the building, so that all walls and corridors can be quickly and easily moved around.

If an airport is a big empty space, it's easy to respond to sudden rules changes, such as the one having to do with liquids on a plane. And in the past five years, there has been a never-ending series of changes to how airports are used.

Security screening takes up a lot more space. Since people can't pick up arriving passengers at the gate, there are now a lot more people waiting around in public areas outside of security.

Now all this would be pretty easy to accommodate at any airport if it weren't for one other thing - the need for retail and restaurant space. Dick Markey is with Airports Council International.

Mr. DICK MARKEY (Airports Council International): The airport needs to get a certain amount of revenue to run the facility. And if your sales of, you know, duty-free goes down, then you're going to adjust some of your other rates to get the amount of revenue you need to run the facility.

DAVIDSON: Since 9/11, many airports have actually made a lot more money because people come early for their flights and have nothing to do, so they spend. But as security rules change, Markey says, the more physically inflexible airports may be forced to eliminate profit-making retail space to accommodate growing security areas. And the less the airport makes on retail, the more it will make on other services.

Mr. MARKEY: You might pay more for your ticket because the airport has to raise the rent it charges to the airlines to offset the loss of the revenue that they use to get from duty-free. Or you may end up paying more for, you know, a rental car because the concession fee changes on the rental car's arrangement with the airport. So the money's going to come out of the passenger one-way or the other.

DAVIDSON: When Homeland Security announces its carry-on liquid rules later this week or early next, some airports could become more crowded and less profitable. But, Markey says, airports designed with some flexibility in mind will probably do just fine no matter what the new rules are.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

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