Twin explosions in the departure hall of Brussels airport prompted several countries worldwide to review or tighten airport security on Tuesday and raised questions about how soon passengers should be screened when entering terminals.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for bomb attacks on Brussels airport and a rush-hour metro train in the Belgian capital which killed at least 30 people.
Prosecutors said the blasts at Zaventem airport, which serves more than 23 million passengers a year, were believed to be caused by suicide bombers.
Authorities responded by stepping up the number of police on patrol at airports in London, Paris and Frankfurt and at other transport hubs as Brussels rail services were also halted.
Airlines scrambled to divert flights as Brussels airport announced it would close through Wednesday.
In the United States, the country’s largest cities were placed on high alert and the National Guard was called in to increase security at New York City’s two airports.
A United Nations agency is already due to review airport security following the downing of a Russian airliner in Egypt by a makeshift soda-can bomb in October last year. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for smuggling the bomb on board.
But there has been less attention focused on how airports themselves are secured, before passengers check in for flights, despite a number of attacks.
‘It strikes me as strange that only half of the airport is secure. Surely the whole airport should be secure, from the minute you arrive in the car park,’ said Matthew Finn, managing director of independent aviation security consultants Augmentiq.
In 2011, a suicide bomber struck the arrival hall at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, killing 37 people. In 2013, a shooter killed a US government Transportation Security Administration officer at Los Angeles international airport.
The relative openness of airports’ public areas in Western Europe contrasts with some in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia, where travellers’ documents and belongings are checked before they are allowed to enter the airport building.
In Turkey, passengers and bags are screened on entering the terminal and again after check-in. Moscow also checks people at terminal entrances.
‘Two terrorists who enter the terminal area with explosive devices, this is undoubtedly a colossal failure,’ Pini Schiff, the former security chief at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport and currently the CEO of the Israel Security Association, said in an interview with Israel Radio.
But such checks could create upheaval at terminals and rely on security staff paying close attention.
‘Any movement of the security ‘comb’ to the public entrance of a terminal building would cause congestion, inconvenience and flight delays, while the inevitable resulting queues would themselves present an attractive target,’ said Ben Vogel, Editor, IHS Jane’s Airport Review.
But adding pre-terminal screening and other measures at airports would be costly.
‘I don’t see it happening anytime soon,’ said Daniel Wagner, CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a security consulting firm in Connecticut in the United States. ‘There’s no sense of urgency and not enough money devoted to the problem.’
Australians witness horror
An Australian who flew into Brussels Airport during the terrorist attack says passengers were left on board on the tarmac while the horror unfolded.
Leigh Dryden was on one of the last flights to land at Brussels airport shortly after two deadly bombs went off in the terminal.
‘As the plane touched down we saw the first puff of smoke over the terminal. The plane came to a sudden stop,’ he told ABC News Breakfast.
He said within 15 minutes all those on board were made aware of the attacks, and sat on the plane for about 90 minutes before they were whisked away from the main terminal.
‘It was chaos,’ he said.’
No Australians have yet been identified as having been caught up in the attacks, but the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade continues to urgently seek out information.
Overnight, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull expressed solidarity for the people of Belgium following the attacks at the city’s airport and at a metro station which have killed 34 people and injured at least 100 more.
‘Deeply concerned by the attacks in Brussels, Australians’ thoughts, prayers & solidarity are with the people of Belgium,’ he tweeted.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop also condemned the attacks.
‘We have upgraded our travel advice for Belgium to advise Australian travellers to reconsider their need to travel,’ she said in a statement from Indonesia.
‘Australians in Brussels should remain attentive to their surroundings, avoid affected areas and follow the instructions of local authorities.’
Ms Bishop said she had spoken to Australia’s ambassador in Brussels, Mark Higgie, for an assessment of the situation and confirmation embassy staff and their families were safe.
Brussels has been put into lockdown following the attacks which reportedly killed at least 26 people and injured many more.
Australian exchange student Mia Egerton-Warburton, who flew into Brussels on Monday night, said her group had been warned to stay indoors and that all public transport had been shut down.
‘We’re feeling a bit shocked, confused and wary of possible further attacks,’ the 20-year-old told AAP.
‘To give you an insight into how tense it is, a car alarm just went off in the street outside our room and literally everyone was looking out their windows. People stopped walking.’
The University of Western Australia student said her group’s plans for sightseeing had been cancelled and they would now leave Brussels on Wednesday.
‘All our families are pretty panicked, basically telling us to get out of Belgium,’ Ms Egerton-Warburton said.
‘We are too scared to go to the grocery store at the moment, so we are basically stuck inside hungry.’
Ms Bishop said any Australians who had concerns for the welfare of family and friends in the region should contact them directly or if unable to do so, call DFAT’s 24-hour Consular Emergency Centre on 1300 555 135 or +61 2 6261 3305 if calling from overseas.