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LT GENERAL P.C.KATOCH | 25 AUGUST, 2017

How Safe Are Indian Airports?

LT GENERAL P.C.KATOCH


NEW DELHI: The Delhi International Airport Private Limited (DIAL) that runs New Delhi's IGI airport reportedly owes Rs 655.4 crore to the CISF for guarding the airport.

These dues accumulated since the past 18 months have mounted because of higher deployment of security personnel that has increased manifold over the years; and, implementation of the 7th Pay Commission.

DIAL has now expressed inability to pay, saying, "The deficit situation (of funds meant for security) has worsened to such an extent that it has become extremely difficult now for us to carry on day-to-day security-related operation(s) ….”.

On June 30, the shortage of funds amounted to Rs 532.5 crore (excluding interest on delayed payment of Rs 191.45 crore charged by CISF), which is further increasing by Rs 5-7 crore every month, daily cost of security at IGI coming to some Rs 1 crore. Whether the initial contract with DIAL included the increase of CISF personnel and increased pay and allowances over the years, is something that the MHA needs to address speedily.

There is also the question that if this much is due to CISF just for guarding IGI, what will be the overall fee with the CISF looking after the security of 59 airports in the country? After all the reasons of heightened security requirements and enhanced emoluments of CISF are applicable across the board, and what will be the extra burden passed on to the taxpayers and travelers?

But other than that, there is urgent need to focus on securit, and streamline procedures to counter possible terrorist attacks.

In a major security breach just a week before Republic Day 2016, Mohammad Abdullah from Hyderabad (claiming working for a company in Gurugram) managed to sneak inside the IGI Airport on a fake Etihad ticket for United Arab Emirates and spent 10 days in the terminal, unnoticed by airport staff and security personnel.

Abdullah said he was turned away once but re-entered the airport.

On January 11, Abdullah had checked in with Etihad, who found his ticket to be forged and reported the matter to CISF. However, they let him off. Within an hour, he took another printout of the ticket and re-entered the airport from another gate. This time, he remained there for 10 days without raising suspicion before a housekeeping staffer told CISF that he had been noticing the man at the terminal for the past few days.

CISF then apprehended him and handed him over to Delhi Police on January 20, 2016. More than 50 people were caught holding fake tickets in 2015, while about 20 cases were reported in 2016. In March 2016, a youth managed to sneak inside the IGI terminal with a pistol. In May 2016, six men were arrested from the IGI terminal for roaming around suspiciously. A week before that, police arrested a foreigner who had sneaked in to see off his girlfriend.

We don’t seem to have learned much from the above. Today also no measures are in place for checking authenticity of the ticket carried by passengers – both by the state and security agencies.

Web check-in tickets have barcodes and so do boarding passes. So why can’t bar codes be made mandatory for air tickets issued by airlines and travel agents, which can be checked at the entrance of the terminal itself?

Surely with the explosion of technology, this is not a difficult task, which should have been addressed years earlier to deny entry on fake tickets. According to the media IGI airport follows the “SHA Security Plan” under which a person does not have to undergo frisking before entering the terminal building, but isn’t this taking the easy route?

What is sacrosanct about this security plan? Have we looked around and observed what the procedures are at other international airports? There is no way one can enter even international airports like Nairobi or Adis Ababa without frisking, the latter being a major hub on international routes and has equal number of daily passengers as IGI, if not more.

The second issue is about baggage screening. There was a time when at Delhi, baggage screening was done just as you entered the ’passenger’ area. This has since been dispensed with. Check-in baggage is screened after it is weighed at the check-in counter. At Kolkata international airport, the screening machine is at one end of the passenger area, and the small placard saying you need to screen the baggage is next to individual check-in counters, which you may notice after you progress further up in the long queues.

The CISF guards 59 airports in the country operated by Airport Authority of India and a few private companies, so why can’t procedures be standardized? Why is it that IGI has discarded hand baggage tags, and Kolkata airport has not?

But more importantly, if we can’t ensure screening of baggage before or at the very entrance to passenger area of airport terminals, are we not facilitating terrorist attacks and by default becoming party to massive casualties that may occur? Are we going to wake up after a Brussels type of terrorist attack at our airports shakes up the establishment?

On August 20, 2017, flight operations at Delhi airport were halted for around two hour (1120 am to 1220 pm) with closure of the runway when an international airline pilot spotted a drone-like object in the area. In the evening, another international airline pilot spotted a similar object near Terminal 3, following which flight operations were halted for 40 minutes. As per reports, the police have not identified yet who were flying these drones. Two Air India flights were reportedly diverted to Lucknow and Ahmedabad. One GoAir and one IndiGo flight were diverted to Jaipur in Rajasthan during the interruption of flight operations.

This is perhaps first such incident in India but there have been many of these at Heathrow Airport, London where drone enthusiasts inadvertently flew drones close the airport. The danger of course is terrorists using these drones to down aircraft and that too by night, making it difficult for pilots to spot them.

Recently, a drone landed undetected at HMS Queen Elizabeth, Britain’s new and largest aircraft carrier. A spokesman for the British Ministry of Defence said: 'We take the security of HMS Queen Elizabeth very seriously. This incident has been reported to Police Scotland, an investigation is under way and we stepped up our security measures in light of it."(http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-40910087).

While this drone was taking photographs, it could have been deployed for sabotage too. Just last month, a lone Russian drone reportedly carrying a Thermite grenade blew up billions of dollars worth of ammunition when it struck the Balakliya military base in Eastern Ukraine.

We have large built up areas adjacent to airports and adjacent to flight paths. The aircraft are particularly vulnerable when flying low during landings and take offs. Besides, the capabilities of drones have gone up tremenduously.

In May 2016, 10 x China made DJI Phantom-4 PRO hi-tech drones capable of flying at 6,000 metres with a half-kg payload and equipped with advanced satellite navigation system were seized from a passenger at Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru. (economictimes.indiatimes.com).

The DJI Phantom-4 PRO drone has a “Tap-by-Use“ feature, which allows users to tap on an individual in a crowd on his screen and allowing the drone to lock and track the person. Now, Florida-based ‘Duke Robotics’ has unveiled the TIKAD, a custom-built multirotor that can carry and fire various military weapons, including semi-automatic rifles and grenade launchers (tikad-gun-toting-drone-military). What magnifies the overall threat matrix is the China-Pakistan collusive anti-India nexus that has no compunctions to exploit terrorism as a tool for terrorizing India. We need to take all these threats into context and evolve counter measures to secure our airports.

(Lt. General P.C.Katoch is a veteran of the Special Forces)

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