Airport Communications Are a Mission Critical Component

Airport gate directional sign

By: Tom Pope

Over the years, air travel has experienced considerable fluctuations in growth, most recently with the global pandemic. In 2022, air travel in the United States was up 55%, to 917 million passengers. Which is lower than in 2019, but the numbers are increasing on a yearly basis with air travel numbers projected to meet or exceed pre-pandemic levels in the next year or two. Airports worldwide are experiencing a similar rebound of passengers traveling more, making airport security and communications an even greater mission-critical safety component.

Speaking of pre-pandemic numbers, air travel before 2019 was nearly 5% of the United States GDP (Gross Domestic Product), with over 10 million aviation jobs estimated in 2019 alone. A similar impact on the economies of other countries has made the industry a vital part of communities. Considering the advancements in technology and the increasing need for technology that may benefit the airline industry, airport security is crucial, whether the airport is run privately or by the government. These changes will require airport security and policing to be more adaptable than ever before.

A Brief History of Airport Security

During World War II, many urban airports added security staff to monitor airfield access and provide round-the-clock security at airplane manufacturing facilities, often adjacent to the airfield. Airports in the United States and other countries increased security in the 1970s due to the number of hijackings, with the FAA mandating carry-on baggage and passenger screenings.

After September 11, 2001, airport security changed dramatically. Increased passenger screening and new ways of screening to detect weapons and explosives residue became commonplace in airports worldwide. Those changes also brought about the need for dedicated specialty units, involvement in task forces, data sharing, the availability of grant funding, and even commercial partnerships to increase security and interoperable and integrated communications.

Integrated Communications

Large, urban airports can be the size of small towns, which means there are a lot of moving pieces, people and traffic to oversee. Integrating communications systems through updated technology is a priority for many airports and helps to streamline all of these aspects. A good example of this is Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. They centralized their operational communications, creating the Integrated Operations Control Center (IOCC) to manage operations, security, resources, calls, service desks, baggage operations and the maintenance dispatch center in one location. Another example is the Sydney Airport in Australia. They also integrated communications through their new Integrated Operations Centre (IOC) which increased communications coverage and greater control of terminal operations using digital technology improvements with the ease of upgrading and improving a centralized solution.

When airports build integrated command centers, they should think about interoperability – for both communications and data. As airports upgrade and expand their facilities, considering the technology needs for interoperability is essential. A 2021 report shows the need to determine the facility’s current communication requirements, as well as future needs, to build the space accordingly. Incoming and outgoing voice, telephony, data, radio, video, wireless control of autonomous units (drones, service robots, etc.), internet, and other relevant technology should all be taken into account when building or upgrading an integrated command center.

Secure Communications

Airport security does not only include person and baggage screening. The safety of communications, data, wireless connections, and other information-sharing methods must be protected. The critical infrastructure behind the scenes not only should protect the hardware but the unseen wireless communication pathways as well.

Security is also more than a physical system. Protecting the data itself, both verbal and logged, is also vital. Airport networks need constant surveillance for signs of cyber-attacks, including unauthorized access and Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. Being prepared is just as important as staying vigilant for ensuring the security and safety of airport communications.

Partnerships

Collaboration in public safety is always beneficial, and airport security is no different and can also benefit from collaborating with other agencies. The size and nature of airports require them to communicate with and use the services of specialized policing units from Federal and local partners, like SWAT teams, crisis negotiation teams, forensics, and others, depending on the situation. Communicating directly with any partnering agencies is critical to mission success, so airports need to ensure their voice and data communications can be shared securely with other agencies.

Airports also need to partner with outside vendors and commercial providers. So, finding the right commercial partners to put the airport’s communications needs first is central to keeping the communications secure, safe, and up to date. Vendor collaborations need long-term partnerships with relationships that provide knowledge and guidance. The proper planning, equipment, installation, training, and ongoing support from commercial partners only serve to strengthen and secure airport communications.

Efficiency and Customer Service

The public’s demand for increased efficiency with personalized versions of excellent customer service places even higher demands on airport communications. The commercial side of airline travel aside, airport staff, such as baggage handlers, airport security, and custodial services, require dependable communications to help meet customer expectations. The same applies to airport police, who deal with unhappy travelers frequently. Airport communications systems that reliably work as intended help keep airport police and staff informed and safe during these customer interactions.

The rapid growth of public safety technology includes products like drones, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, self-driving airport vehicles, facial recognition screening and pre-screening, and many others that can bolster airport public safety. As airports continue to plan for system security threats like cyber-attacks, system failures, and even an over-reliance on technology, technology should be balanced to remain helpful without hindering safety or communications. Long-term planning, integrated communications systems, security, and partnerships can ensure one of the mission-critical components for every airport function at the highest levels while remaining secure to keep everyone in the airports safe.

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