Airport travelers are accustomed to scrutiny at screening checkpoints. Metal detectors and security personnel posted at the concourse entrance have been a fact of life for years. But the average traveler, stuck in a long, snaking line, wearily waiting to board a plane, probably doesn’t give much thought to the potential for security risks from the concourse exit lane. Of course, airports, airlines and relevant government officials spend their days and nights worrying about such things. What if a highjacker seizes the opportunity to sneak through the exit lane the wrong way, weaving through oncoming traffic while the lane is extremely crowded?

By Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandate, the exit lane or “portal” must be guarded by a person or accepted technology. But what if an accomplice distracts the guard allowing the potential perpetrator to slip through?

The breach doesn’t have to be a real threat to security to be costly. Let’s say an innocent passenger bumbles through the exit lane to the boarding area, triggering a search and causing flight delays. And exit-lane violations can take other forms. A highjacker or terrorist could slide or throw an explosive device or weapon through the lane to a waiting collaborator on the other side, while another collaborator diverts the attention of security personnel.

Joe Freeman, president of J. P. Freeman Inc., a security-consulting firm in Newtown, Conn., told Business Wire magazine that exit-lane safety depends on the vigilance of those on duty. Though the intention is good, Freeman said posting National Guard troops, air marshals and other sentries offers “somewhat limited effectiveness” to unlawful probes on vulnerable security points.

“Real control is possible with technology that largely eliminates the human element in detecting behavior that's inconsistent with the safety of American travelers,” Freeman said.

New technology

While “the human element” has its advantages—seasoned guards can use their sixth sense to sniff out fishy behavior and perhaps thwart would-be terrorists before they make a move— “accepted technology” is proving to be an alternative to FAA and now Transportation Security Administration (TSA) requirements. For instance, Cernium Inc., St. Louis, has developed ExitSentry, a monitoring system that guards the exit lane without the guard.

Cernium said the system, which has a $65,000 average installation price, pays for itself in a year. A checkpoint may need two or three manned shifts, and the Cernium site lists a single guard’s annual salary at $54,750 based on an $18.75 hourly wage. Airports in Cleveland, Nashville, Tenn., Oakland, Calif., and Orlando, Fla., are among Cernium’s clients.

Ken Vondrasek, Cernium’s director of operations, said the firm has extensive research data available for customers: statistics on exit breaches, number of alarms during the day, research on their own system and product specs and other security issues.

He added that the software-based system is easy to install—normally two small CCTV cameras and an audio/visual strobe connected to a command module inside the screening area—and therefore flexible enough for screening-area retrofits or new construction.

When a wrong-way alarm is tripped, the module provides a looped videotape of the violation and can print hard copies of the videotape to aid in capturing the suspect. The system can also be set up for a central or remote monitoring station. Retrofits were more common, Vondrasek said, when airports and airlines, and not the newly formed Transportation Security Administration, handled screening.

“We provide everything,” Vondrasek said. “In fact, we had to jump through hoops and become general contractors overnight, furnishing everything required for a total turnkey installation, including walls if necessary and minor architectural modifications. So we have contractors that we partner with that can provide the entire package, front to back, including the electrical installation.”

The airport can also include ExitSentry as part of the bid package for a newly constructed checkpoint. Since they have worked with numerous U.S. and Canadian consultants, Cernium will help with designs, specs and drawings.

“It comes out for bid and local electrical and security contractors call us for pricing. We have a package that we quote to them which includes our system and our commissioning, which is basically one of our factory-trained technicians coming out to the job site and doing the final terminations on the system devices,” Vondrasek said. “They configure the system, aim the cameras, test it thoroughly and train the necessary staff on system operation and maintenance.”

Working at airports

Cernium normally uses local electrical contractors even on direct installations, selected from a list provided by the airport. They are usually those who already have security clearance, know security protocols and the lay of the land.

“So their installation process goes smoother. We get bids and contract with the one who’s the best, not necessarily the cheapest,” Vondrasek said. “And they do the ‘pipe and wire’ and we come in and do the rest.”

“We basically do the engineering and the local electrical does the installation from our engineered drawings and we come in and do the commissioning,” he added.

Cernium, which made its first ExitSentry installation in 1996, found airports, with all the rules and procedures from several government agencies, the airlines, and the airport governance itself, can make for a tough working environment. It was a rude awakening. The job is often done during off hours and in heavily trafficked, makeshift construction areas cordoned off with plywood barriers.

“It’s not a cookie-cutter, plug-and-play type operation,” Vondrasek said. “The process is complicated. We’ve streamlined it into what we consider an art and it seems to go very smoothly.”

Converting the skeptics

Initially, Vondrasek found some skeptics, which he called “a shame.” Some ExitSentry systems were removed in reconfigured exit lanes only to have the TSA ask how much it would cost to have them reinstalled.

“There was a lot of resistance at first because there’s a new entity (the TSA) and new rules and the two were supposed to be working together but not always the case,” Vondrasek said. “But we’re starting to see, particularly in the small and mid-size airports, where they are working very closely together to accomplish the same mission, same goal: a good, well-oiled machine and security.”

An ExitSentry selling point is the wrong-way detection feature. Alarms ring when a person—or flying object—tries to enter the exit lane, and new software tracks “fast motion,” such as something thrown over the head of people going in the correct direction. It also tracks small motion, that of a small object, regardless of how busy the lane is.

So Cernium sends a baseball—because of its uniform dimensions—to the job site, where it’s rolled and tossed through every part of the lane to make sure it’s picked up by the system and creates an alarm.

“The FAA was really perplexed. I spoke to one of their technical people years ago about it and when they saw our “flying object” comment in our literature, they called me and said, ‘What kind of flying object? What are you testing?’” Vondrasek laughed.

“They were so puzzled over this. If they use these toy plastic guns they use for the X-ray machines, it has varied dimensions depending on how it revolves through the ‘throw.’ Well, that’s a problem. That’s why we use a baseball. We know the test is going to come out,” he said. EC