Sniffing out trouble

Flight safety - Sniffing out trouble

Boarding with confidence: As Deputy Managing Director of the Aviation Association, Cornelia Okpara knows all about the risks lurking at airports. She tells us why she puts her faith in well-trained staff from private security companies and sharing the task with the federal authorities in the fight against terrorists.

Do you feel safe in airports and planes, Mrs Okpara?

Yes. I fly a lot within Germany and feel qualified to judge the level of safety from my own personal experience. So I know that strict and thorough checks are made. But there is no such thing as complete safety. Not in any area of our lives and therefore not in terms of flying, either.

In 2015, 341,000 banned items were found during safety checks in Germany, including 900 firearms and 2,372 explosives and ammunition. Shouldn’t these figures make air travelers a little nervous?

On the contrary. I would be worried if security firm staff found less. And you have to take a more sophisticated view of the findings. There aren’t any actual figures, but most of it isn’t down to malicious intent by passengers or even terrorist intent, but a lack of knowledge and some stupidity. After all, scissors that are too big and forgotten Swiss Army pen knives also appear in these statistics.

What is the most important requirement for maintaining current safety levels in future, too?

Technology is getting more and more sophisticated. Scanners and detectors enable us to identify and eliminate possible risks in good time. But staff quality is also important. Only well-trained security people are able to use the available technology to the best advantage. People are the deciding factor. So the range of activities has also changed a lot over the decades. The days of the minimum wage and low training standards are definitely over in private security firms. The requirements are far too complex. EU regulations clearly define the conditions that staff have to fulfil in security sensitive areas at airports – identity checks, for example.

But there do seem to be loopholes in this area?

You mean the fake certificates at Cologne/Bonn airports for training that hasn’t been done?


This was and is disastrous for the industry’s image and can’t be glossed over. But it was the first case of its kind in all my time at the Federation of Economic Security (BDSW) since 1994. On that scale – it’s just an isolated case. And there has never been a security failure at Cologne/Bonn. But I make no secret of the fact that applicants have submitted fake diplomas in other parts of the security industry. We are currently working with the Chamber of Industry and Commerce to make proof of training more secure.

Are you also concerned about training standards for airport staff in other countries?

In Europe – no. Training and testing are covered by regulations in the EU, after all. And the requirements go beyond that in Germany, as the Federal Aviation Office in Braunschweig and any of its six branches can also set additional training content. As for the incidents at Cologne/Bonn, there was a renewed demand for airport security to be handed over to government bodies alone. This comes within the remit of the government in some countries. Right, but does this also lead to a higher level of security? I believe that the figures contradict this assumption. And private security firms and the authorities share these tasks at around 600 of the 1,940 or so passenger airports around the world. Apart from Germany, this also includes Spain and Canada, which are both known for their high security levels.

What is the advantage of sharing out the tasks – apart from the fact that, as a federation, the BDSW represents the economic interests of its member companies?

A high degree of flexibility and a stronger focus on core tasks. Compared to government bodies, private security firms can react quicker to changing requirements in terms of deployment locations and times. In my view, it is even more important for the Federal Police to be able to concentrate on their own job. The security situation is tense – and will probably remain that way for the foreseeable future. In this context, we can’t afford to squander the resources of highly trained Federal Police officers on standard identity checks at airports. They are over-qualified for that. If an actual threat occurs when people are being checked, these specialists are brought in anyway. Task distribution is efficient and has proved successful.

How do you see the debate on banning laptops?

Our technology experts don’t see any security benefit in this. The opposite would be true, in fact, as passengers would stow their laptops in their luggage. Lithium-ion batteries are a problem, as they are a not inconsiderable fire hazard. There would be a real problem if a fire broke out in the baggage compartment.

Apart from the laptop ban, the industry is also talking about the use of drones. What does the spread of remote-controlled aircraft mean for airport safety?

They are both a blessing and a curse. They can be used to monitor far-flung sections of the airfield, which are otherwise hard to keep a check on. At the same time – potential attackers could use a drone to carry an explosive device to the site, for example. Airport operators need to protect themselves against this. The appropriate solutions are already being worked on.

Does this also apply to private drone pilots, who represent a source of danger?

There was a near miss at Warsaw Airport, for example, and pilots at Frankfurt and Munster Airports also reported visual contact with drones inside the danger zone. There has been a new law in Germany for a number of months now. A drone cannot fly within a one and a half km radius of an airfield. And the radius is eight kilometers for large airports. To avoid collisions with helicopters, drones aren’t allowed to fly in the vicinity of hospitals, either. This has taken us a good step forward.

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Picture Credits: © Katrin Denkewitz