Bloomberg News

Diamond Heist Spurs Drive to Plug Vulnerable Airport Perimeters

February 20, 2013

Diamonds Valued at $50 Million Stolen at Brussels Airport

The robbers flashed guns at the pilots and security workers before forcing open the cargo doors and taking the packets of gems from inside. Photographer: Yves Logghe/AP Photo

Airports are developing electronic tripwires to protect miles of perimeter fencing and thwart incidents such as this week’s $50 million diamond heist in Belgium, which saw thieves use cars to breach the boundary.

QinetiQ Group Plc (QQ/), a U.K. maker of spy equipment, Israeli security specialist Elbit Systems Ltd. (ESLT) and U.S.-based Verint Systems Inc. (VRNT:US) are among companies developing intruder-detection systems they say can thwart a similar raid. Heathrow airport, Europe’s busiest, is testing a combination of monitoring systems to gain a comprehensive picture of its surrounding fences.

In an age when security checks ban passengers from carrying a large shampoo bottle in their hand luggage, the Brussels heist puts the spotlight on the safety of airports’ perimeters that can run for miles through unpopulated land. Airports face the challenge of filtering out unwanted intruders from millions of travelers each year and the constant buzz on the airfield.

“We’ve seen it before at other airports when somebody who didn’t have any bad intentions just came through the fence or climbed over the fence and ended up walking on the tarmac,” said Fred Lowrance, an airline analyst with Avondale Partners LLC in Nashville, Tennessee. “If somebody is motivated to get on the property, they’re going to be able to do it. I don’t know what you can do short of having the perimeter patrolled by hundreds of armed officers every day.”

Armed Robbery

In Brussels, eight armed men stole $50 million of gems from the hold of a Zurich-bound Swiss International Air Lines Ltd. plane on Feb. 18 after breaking through the fence. The attack took place at 8 p.m. and was over in 10 minutes. The robbers flashed guns at the pilots and security workers before forcing open the cargo doors and taking the packets of gems from inside. Nobody was injured.

The Brussels gunmen forced their way through the airport fence at a place where two work sites obstructed a clear view, the Associated Press reported. Jan Van der Cruysse, a spokesman for Brussels airport, wouldn’t reveal whether anti-theft measures had been tightened.

“This is a situation that warrants our full attention,” he said. “We are addressing all the aspects.”

Verint, based in Melville, New York, provides security systems at more than 50 airports and is leading a group of companies working on the so-called Total Airport Security Solution, which has been on trial at Heathrow.

Security Program

Part of a four-year program funded by the European Union running through March 2014, TASS unites 20 companies, research organizations and end-users, including Haifa-based Elbit, Britain’s BAE Systems Plc (BA/) and airports in Greece and Portugal.

Heathrow, where the 1983 Brinks-MAT bullion robbery was known at the time as the “crime of the century,” also deployed radar provided by Cambridge, England-based Plextek Ltd. last May to help protect distant parts of the perimeter.

The company’s Blighter B400 series, developed and supplied by Touchstone Electronics, includes long-range day and night detectors, as well as high-definition equipment for tracking intruders, and is well-suited to monitoring remote areas, Heathrow Security Development Manager Andy Cowen said last year.

“Incidents around the world are quite common,” said Ian Graham, senior vice president at Verint. “Airports are trying to put systems in place to almost tell them about a breach before it happens. You can have a virtual tripwire.”

London-based QinetiQ, the former U.K. government defense laboratory, is developing the OptaSense system, which is so far being used to guard oil pipelines against illegal siphoning and to monitor railway lines for the theft of metal cables.

Motion Detection

Magnus McEwen-King, the project’s managing director, said the technology could detect motion and voices near airports with an accuracy of a few meters via distortions to a light signal sent through a fiber-optic cable laid around the perimeter.

“We turn that fiber-optic cable into a microphone,” he said in an interview.

At least $60 billion is stolen every year from within the global transportation system, according to Andrew Thomas, an associate professor of International Business at the University of Akron in Ohio. While the Sept. 11 2001 attacks on the U.S. spurred security enhancements aimed at protecting passengers, measures against criminals have lagged behind, he said.

“You’re faced with a Herculean task of trying to secure the system the best way you can,” Thomas said. “It’s 24/7, 365 days a year and operates with tens of millions of people. Nine-eleven made it an issue from a terror perspective. We’ve pushed aside any consideration about criminals.”

Wandering Cow

Heathrow Airport Ltd. didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment today, while Amsterdam Schiphol, which suffered the biggest robbery in Dutch history in 2005 when diamonds worth $115 million in today’s currency were taken, declined to give details of its security arrangements.

Sealing off an airfield from its surrounding remains a challenge particularly in poorer parts of the world, where airports tend to have little to no ring-fencing. In 2005, an Air France (AF) Airbus A330 wide-body hit a cow that had strayed onto the tarmac at the airport in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. None of the 196 passengers and crew were injured, while the cow’s fate remained unknown.

Still, even the best security upgrades in the world may fail to deal with the Achilles heel of any high-value industry: the inside job.

“Criminals are operating within the system,” Thomas said. “They are ubiquitous. It’s something that has been with air transport from the beginning, and will always be there.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Robert Wall in London at rwall6@bloomberg.net; Kari Lundgren in London at klundgren2@bloomberg.net; Mary Schlangenstein in Dallas at maryc.s@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at bkammel@bloomberg.net


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