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The new age of high-security airports

July 12, 2016
Norfolk Airport
Norfolk International Airport

A well designed airport is a beautiful thing. Today, architecture firms are not only designing new and renovated airports for esthetic appeal, they’re also doing it with passenger safety in mind.

Yes, a person has a higher probability of getting struck by lightning than dying in a terror attack, but keeping people safe is still a top priority at airports around the world, and architecture firms are rising to the challenge. Gresham, Smith and Partners, for example, recently designed a screening area at Norfolk International Airport in Virginia that maximized flexibility. Why? Because security needs change rapidly, as security threats have moved from one form of weaponry to another. That means security officials needs to adapt, and a flexible space gives them more options.

With that in mind, Gresham, Smith and Partners designed a large open space without support columns, allowing for easy reconfiguration as new generations of screening machines are developed and deployed.

Indeed, Reuters reported earlier this year the U.S. Transportation Security Administration called on companies to devise new ways to address threats, improve passenger screening and deliver next-generation screening technologies. Proposals are due to the TSA later this month.

Designers are faced with the herculean task of improving frontline security at airports without slowing the flow of travelers. Some space designers have responded to the challenge by creating more offsite checkpoints, as well as directing passengers through channels that expose them, often secretly, to sensors, video cameras, facial recognition software and human observers.

“Aviation has a lot to learn from Las Vegas casinos,” Wilson Rayfield, an executive at Gresham, Smith and Partners, told Reuters, referring to surveillance cameras and crowd control methods that he says allow three-fourths of visitors to be identified.

The use of large, open areas offers surveillance technologies and officials better sightlines for observing people and behavior. Vast open spaces also reduce the concussive power and damage of an explosive that evades detection.

Newark Liberty International Airport, a major New York City area airport, has moved vehicles farther from the terminal to lessen the threat of a car bomb. A terminal renovation is slated to begin soon at Denver International Airport that will increase the number of security checkpoints and disperse them more widely to reduce the size of crowds.

That is a technique used by Israeli security officials at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, where the risk of terror attacks is especially high. The surveillance there starts before travelers reach the parking area or terminal, according to Reuters. Cars are stopped at a checkpoint, watched over by guards and cameras that read license plates. People deemed suspicious are pulled over for questioning and even searches if warranted.

The best airports have long been architectural masterpieces. Now, as a matter of necessity, they are not only beautiful, many are safer than ever for the traveling public.

Written by Mike Consol

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