A helicopter view of airport risk

In December 2018, Gatwick Airport was disrupted for more than 30 hours as one or more drones near the runway forced flights to be suspended. As London’s second largest airport, there was significant disruption. It affected over 1000 flights and is estimated to have cost airlines £35m. The airport itself lost approximately £15m and1 more than 140,000 travellers were affected with police and military personnel deployed to deter further incursions. UK officials described the incident as “a deliberate act”; but to date, no culprits have been identified.

There was no indication that this incident was terror-related, but it does demonstrate that drones are the latest malicious threats to airports that could be employed by terrorist actors. The 2016 shooting and suicide attacks at Atatürk airport, Istanbul and Brussels caused many deaths and injured hundreds. Explosive attacks, employing mortar-type devices, had been used in the previous year at another Istanbul airport, as well as two decades previously at London Heathrow.

Attractive target

All three attack-types are reminders of how transport hubs are not only vulnerable, but also appealing to terrorists. Our recent blog about the key geopolitical risks for the aviation industry in 2019 highlights the various threats to the industry. The opportunity to cause large numbers of casualties, substantial property losses and significant disruption, all under the gaze of a global audience, is particularly striking for such adversaries.

The complexities of airport operations add to a terrorist group’s opportunities. Along with the huge number of travellers, workers and supporting staff arriving and leaving, there are the physical structures, including the runways, which do not require significant damage to render them inoperable. There are also a wide range of associated potential targets, ranging from transport infrastructure, such as subway trains and road tunnels, as well as hotels, freight warehousing and the aircraft themselves.

As we saw with the Gatwick Airport incident, disruption on such a scale can be significantly out of proportion to any damage done. Interruption to staff commutes or relatively minor damage to the aircraft operating surfaces can quickly result in the suspension of flights and the loss of significant revenue.

The cyber systems of such an integrated enterprise also remain vulnerable. In 2018 one of the UK’s smaller airports, Bristol, suffered a cyberattack that resulted in all flight timetable displays being inoperable for nearly two days. There was no significant disruption as staff resorted to hand-written white boards, but it is a demonstration of how essential the simplest of communication systems can be affected.

Risk management

To counter such risks, many airports go beyond traditional “two-dimensional” physical security and access control measures such as fencing, cameras and scanning. An integrated defense, encompassing detection, delay and deterrence systems includes surveillance at a distance from the perimeter as well as deployment of various counter-drone systems. Such “three-dimensional” approaches include integrated cyber-security — particularly pertinent where there could be physical consequences to a systems breach, such as air traffic control.

Risk-based approaches can include “red-team” modeling, employed to identify areas or systems of particular vulnerability. Other modeling, using computational fluid dynamics software, can simulate mass crowd movements responding to a variety of attack types. This can be particularly useful in identifying key evacuation routes.

Risk transfer

Some general liability programs specifically include terrorism. However the benefits of a dedicated liability program, attaching to the terrorism and sabotage policy, are significant. The ability to progress with a claim, without the need to establish the nature of the event, can reduce the management overload on risk teams in the immediate aftermath of such events.

In circumstances when an attack has resulted in a number of fatalities, it is not uncommon for property owners, relatives and other stakeholders to request some form of memorial. These factors need to be considered when purchasing cover, as well as the potential delay in re-opening that might be caused by an expectation by the bereaved that they are involved with the redesign of damaged structures.

Enduring risk control required

Airports will continue to be a tempting target for terrorists. The combination of high population densities, commercial aircraft from all over the globe and a symbol of national prestige, will require that enduring risk controls include regular analysis to ensure evolving threats are identified and managed in a timely and cost effective manner.


1. https://www.independent.co.uk/travel/news-and-advice/gatwick-drone-airport-cost-easyjet-runway-security-passenger-cancellation-a8739841.html

About Wendy Peters

Wendy is the Global Head of Terrorism within Financial Solutions. Based in Radnor, Pennsylvania, she has 21 years o…
Categories: Claim & Risk Control, Cyber Risk, Global Risks, Insurance and Risk Management, Political Risk, Risk Culture, Terrorism | Tags: , , , , , ,

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