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Airport Traffic Control Equipment: An Ongoing Need

A series of high-profile incidents over the last 15 years has underscored the need for effective airport traffic control equipment.  The most notorious of these events occurred in the United States on September 11, 2001.  Since that date, airports around the world have experienced a variety of threats to passenger safety.  These range from relatively minor incidents caused by unintentional error to deliberate acts of terrorism or sabotage.

Preventing such occurrences is the responsibility of airport security officers.  To do their job effectively, however, these professionals need access to modern airport traffic control equipment, both to effectively manage human movements within the airport and to screen out possible threats.  

Examples of this type of equipment include the following:

  • Metal detectors.  Anyone who has traveled by public airways during the last several decades is familiar with these devices.  Designed to detect suspicious objects within luggage or clothing, they have prevented countless tragedies over the years.  However, today’s terrorist cells have become ever more adept at hiding explosives and other weapons from these machines.  Also, until 2008 these machines required passengers to remove their shoes, as models in use at the time were ineffective at detecting metal objects hidden within footwear.
  • X-ray machines and so-called “puffer machines” that detect trace amounts of commonly used explosives.  These devices surpass traditional metal detectors in their ability to detect potentially threats in passenger’s luggage.
  • Backscatter X-ray machines.  Offering an enhanced form of x-ray detection, these devices are being used as airport traffic control equipment in many locations across the world.  Backscatter x-ray devices create high-resolution images of individuals being scanned, allowing security personnel to detect threats that would otherwise go unnoticed.  Use of these devices has become controversial, however, due to the potentially invasive nature of the images they produce.

As effective as these measures are, they are of little use when terrorists openly attack airports. While rare, these types of assaults have the potential to cause great harm.  On March 26, 2006, at JFK International Airport in New York, a man drove his car onto an active runway where an Air France plane was scheduled to land.  He was able to drive around for more than 20 minutes before officers could stop him.  On that same day, another intruder ran through a secure gate at Midway International Airport in Chicago, causing the shutdown of four separate runways.

On November 1, 2013, a gunman shot and killed airport security agent Gerardo Hernandez at LA international Airport.  The gunmen also injured two civilians before federal agents stopped him.

Because of the unconcealed nature of these types of attacks, they require large-scale security measures like chain-link fencing, concrete bollards, mobile barricades, and, as a last resort, armed officers.

Besides terrorism, airports must deal with other types of security threats.  These include:

  • Theft.  Large, crowded modern airports are fertile hunting grounds for pickpockets and other types of thieves.  Threats range from pilfered wallets and emptied purses to stolen luggage and even cargo.
  • Human trafficking.  As tragic as it may sound, slavery still exists in the modern world.  Airports are frequently used as places to recruit or transport the victims of these crimes.
  • Smuggling.  Public airports are used to transport all types of contraband, including illegal drugs, endangered animals, and classified government information.
  • Pedestrian safety.  Amidst the hustle and bustle of the millions of people who move through the world’s airports each day, there are many opportunities for accidents to happen.  Vehicles dropping off or picking up passengers, fliers moving through the airport, passengers trying to locate luggage or other services—all of these require signage, bollards, or other mechanisms to ensure general safety of the public.

Coping with these threats to safety require both modern airport traffic control equipment and attentiveness on the part of security officers and the general public.


Despite the incidents described in this article, the world’s airports remain remarkably safe overall.  Ensuring the security of airline travelers will require both airport traffic control equipment and personnel trained in its use.  Taken together, these measures provide an effective defense against threats of all kinds.