Aviation security experts say regional airports are vulnerable to crime, but local councils do not have the money to make them safer and promised counter-terrorism funding is yet to be released.
The Federal Government announced in last year’s budget that $50.1 million over four years would be made available to upgrade screening equipment at regional airports.
The bulk of that money would be dispersed to “pre-identified eligible regional airports,” who applied to the Department of Home Affairs.
Eligibility is based on departing passenger data, the capacity of the planes operating at the airports and existing screening equipment, according to the department.
“Upgrading airport screening technology is one of the most effective changes we can make to address the increasing sophistication of explosives and other threats,” a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said.
“In recognition of the cost impacts of new technology upgrades on critical regional aviation services, the Government will provide funding of $50.1 million to eligible airports to help implement the new arrangements.”
The spokesperson said the list of airports invited to apply could not be released for security reasons.
But Roger Henning, the founder of crisis management consultancy Homeland Security Asia/Pacific, said there were more pressing problems.
He said regional airports were essential, but “three strands of wire fence” was not enough protection and inconsistent identification requirements needed to change.
“Try getting into a local, licensed venue without ID,” Mr Henning said.
“When it comes to aviation, it’s a different story.”
Mr Henning said uniform standards around identification and staff training should be priority areas.
Mike Carmody, the former chief of security for the Federal Airports Corporation at Sydney Airport, agreed there were some basics — like staff capability to respond to threats — that should be on the agenda, but it was a difficult ask for airport operators.
“We carry on about full body scanning and passenger profiling and it’s all well and good, but when you start looking at regional ports that have no money and regional communities absolutely rely on, they don’t even have fencing or lighting,” he said.
“In regional ports where the airport operator is a very, very small council … they simply don’t have the resources to apply the sort of level of security that’s required now in regional airports.
“You could say it’s a cop out, but it’s a reality.”
A matter of cost
In 2017, Kempsey Shire Council was ordered to pay $186,000 to a pilot after a landing plane was damaged when it hit a kangaroo.
The District Court found the council, as the responsible operator of the Kempsey Aerodrome, had failed to build a kangaroo-proof fence and was therefore liable for the cost of the damage incurred, plus interest.
The verdict was recently overturned on appeal, after the court found the council did not have the funds to upgrade fencing and the risk of kangaroos was apparent.
But Mr Henning said councils should be in no doubt about their responsibilities.
He said they are ultimately liable for what happens at an airport they own and control.
“The government has no liability … [councils] have no idea they are at risk,” he said.
“They have to ensure they have enough public liability to save themselves.”
Mr Carmody agreed, but said a high level of cover is often too expensive for small councils.
“[Councils], as the airport operator, they have responsibility for the performance and application of security measures at that airport, no different to the owners of Sydney airport or Brisbane airport,” he said.
He said there is some government involvement and airline involvement in maintaining standards and uniformity, but ultimately the council would bear the cost of a breach.
“You would find although [regional councils] have insurance, it would be the absolute minimum cover of public liability. Why? Because they can’t afford it,” Mr Carmody said.
“It’s pointless throwing these regulations and policies and requirements at regional airports knowing full well that the local council or whoever owns these ports are not within cooee of ever being able to fund this.”
How safe are you?
However, John Coyne, a senior analyst of the border security program at Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said he does not think regional airports are more vulnerable than their larger city counterparts.
With fewer flights and smaller communities that are aware of anything that is not as it should be, Mr Coyne said it could be argued the risk is lower in regional areas.
“You’re more likely to pick strange behaviour [in a regional airport],” he said.
Mr Coyne’s view is security upgrades should only be linked to specific threat and said it is difficult to make anywhere completely secure.
“Can you ever secure an airport? Yes. Don’t let anyone go there or any packages be sent there,” he said.
“Everything else is a compromise.”
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