Security efforts have been stepped up at airports across Europe and the United States after a terrorist attack in a check-in area of the Brussels Airport in Belgium killed and injured dozens Tuesday.
For decades, security checkpoints have been in place for people wishing to access the plane and gate areas of airports. An additional layer of security was added after the 9/11 attacks, when general access was further restricted only to passengers able to show boarding passes for a flight.
But it’s the areas before security — such as check-in areas or even the security lines themselves — that have long been mentioned as “soft targets” that could be attractive targets for terrorists.
That has led some to wonder about whether airport security should be further extended to the entrance of the airports themselves. The idea also was floated in late 2013 after a gunman killed a Transportation Security Administration officer in a pre-security area at Los Angeles International Airport.
“That question always comes up at airports when there is an incident like this,” says Jeff Price, a travel-security expert and author who is an associate professor at Metro State University in Denver.
But Price says that doesn’t necessarily alleviate the threat and could actually raise new vulnerabilities.
“The problem is, you’re just relocating the place the attack will occur," he says. “The point of a suicide bombing is to detonate in an area where there are a lot of people, so relocating the place where people gather or wait … just relocates where the bomber will go.”
And if the security perimeter expands to the drop-off curb, Price says that may make crowds “more susceptible to vehicle bombing. The benefit of an airport like LAX is that the terminals are all spread out so you don’t have everyone collected in one location.”
Don Borelli, a security expert with the Soufan Group and a former assistant special agent in charge of the New York Joint Terrorism Task Force, echoed that sentiment in comments to NBC News.
“You might have a long line of cars waiting for people to get in, and now that becomes a target (for) somebody with a bomb in the trunk,” Borelli says to NBC. “You have to have good physical security. You have to have that show of force. But you also have to have the intelligence to … try and stop these things before they get started.”
One prominent congressman agreed that intelligence is a crucial part of the anti-terror effort. Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., says the threat reinforces the need to detect plots before attackers arrive at the airport or train station, he said.
“They can just leave the bomb where the passengers are lined up,” said King, a member and former chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. “That’s why intelligence is important, to stop them before they get there.”
So, where does that leave airports after the Brussels incident?
“The best thing U.S. airports can do to deter this type of attack is deploy uniformed law enforcement who act as both deterrents and can identify suspicious behavior,” says Price, the security expert and professor at Metro State. “The bomber does not want to get caught before getting to their target and, while in some cases the target may actually be police, usually the bomber will go to where they are less likely to be spotted.”