Alarming Gaps in Airport Security

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Timor-Leste’s future appears to get brighter every day. Leaders are working diligently to advance Timor-Leste’s accession plan into the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), which promises to enhance relationships and economic cooperation with other countries. Amidst the prospect of significant gains internationally, leaders must remain vigilant in taking continued steps to protect the security of their citizens, and to improve security gaps which may negatively affect other nations linked to Nicolau Lobato International Airport.

From a legislative standpoint, the government set out regulations for airport security in 2006. Decree law 06/2006 “establishes the principles and rules of access of people and vehicles to restricted and reserved areas in airports and air fields nationwide.” This blog from Fundasaun Mahein seeks to measure the current state of airport security at Nicolau Lobato International Airport against the legal standard created by the government themselves, and the extent to which the government is effectively protecting citizens of Timor-Leste and destination countries from harm.

Article 4, Part 1 seeks to delineate the “Restricted,” areas of the airport (presumably only DIL airport) where, according to Article 2, “access is restricted and controlled for security reasons by way of access cards.” However, the language includes the “Parking Area,” in Article 4, Part 1-5, and “all areas and facilities within the airport perimeter,” in Article 4, Part 1-6 as pieces of the restricted zone. This does not seem to be logical, and does not match with the current labels for restricted zones at Nicolau Lobato Airport. The “Air side,” which is declared as a fully restricted zone, includes “entire area of the airport including the runways, the taxiways, the circulation routes and all buildings with access to those areas.” However, according to this definition, the entire terminal building and VIP building would be restricted areas.

While the restricted zones currently labeled at the airport (check-in, departures lounge, arrivals lounge, cargo zone, administrative zone) are consistent with international standards, FM recommends that the government update their legislation in Articles 2 and 4 to more clearly delineate restricted zones, and to revise the definitions of “Air side,” and “Land side,” zones within the airport. This should be done for Nicolau Lobato International Airport specifically, and separately for other airports across the nation. If the “Air side” and “Land side” of the airport are not clearly defined for everyone to understand, and not perfectly enforced by airport security authorities, it becomes possible for a person to secretly bring things like drugs or weapons on to the runway, and to give it to a passenger to take on to the plane. It is critical that “Air side” spaces be continuously patrolled and enforced, so that dangerous actors do not have any opportunity to sneak something into this area and on to an aircraft.

The government must also take steps to ensure that these zones are equally secure during off-hours. FM’s monitoring has recorded incidents in which Nicolau Lobato International Airport was not being patrolled by any personnel during off-hours. During these times, almost every part of the airport, including the runway, check-in zones, and luggage processing zone, were unlocked and easily accessed. At other points, FM’s monitoring recorded the presence of security guards on the premises, but they were not actively patrolling the perimeter fence of the airport, which could be easily mounted under the cover of darkness.

While the access card system covered in Articles 6-18 would effectively ensure that non-authorized personnel do not breach security barriers, this system is not being implemented consistently and universally. FM’s very own director, who does not have eligibility for any special airport access as defined by Article 11, is frequently allowed to bypass security checkpoints and enter the restricted “Air side,” departure lounge without any display of identification, restricted access badge, or purchased airline ticket.

Unfortunately, the combination of a porous land border, unmonitored coastlines, and a weak customs regime render Timor-Leste a territory that terrorist organizations or other criminal organizations could exploit for logistical operations with relative ease. However, if addressed, the government can make substantial improvements to minimize these risks at the airport.

In light of these observations, FM hopes that citizens will express their concern to public officials regarding the need for urgent reform to Nicolau Lobato International Airport’s security operations. If a terrorist attack on one of those destination cities were to occur using an aircraft from Dili, there would be immense human costs for Timor-Leste, and likely for citizens of many other nations as well. Nations such as Australia and Singapore would be likely to suspend direct flights to Timor-Leste, significantly increasing the cost of travel for immigrants, tourists, and investors to and from Dili. Further, Timor-Leste would face significant reputational damage at a crucial point in their ASEAN accession process.

The first line of defense is with personnel training. Security personnel must be trained to understand that security only works if it is applied to every single person entering into a sensitive area. Otherwise, there is no actual control over what can enter or exit the country. They must understand that there can be no exceptions to the rule, and that personnel who allow people without access cards or boarding passes to enter into secure areas will face serious consequences. The runway, which is the last point before people board on to planes, must be the most secure. If people are able to bypass luggage checkpoints and access this space at any time, the security of the airport is significantly compromised.

FM Recommends:

1. Hire airport security experts to conduct an onsite evaluation of the airport and to explain how a terrorist could take advantage of current weak points in the security system to carry out an attack. In addition, this group may provide a framework for legal reform of Law Decree 2006/6, and recommendations for necessary equipment upgrades.

2. Re-issue a new legislative framework for airport security regulation (Decree Law 2006/6) that clarifies the definitions of restricted zones, reserved zones, air side locations, and land side locations. In addition, clarify language within the decree regarding which civilians (passenger and non-passenger) can enter which areas at a given time.

3. Re-train all existing security staff in international standards of airport security protocol, the updated law decree pertaining to airport security, and the consequences if their security procedures are not followed closely.

4. Ensure that 24/7 airport patrol units are specifically trained in airport security, and understand the need for constant perimeter monitoring.

For more details on this issue, please contact:

Nélson Belo
Executive Director of FM
Phone: +670 78316075 or 7756 1184

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