Europe's airport security dilemma

BRUSSELS, Belgium — When the Obama administration ordered airport security ramped up after the December bombing attempt aboard an Amsterdam-to-Detroit flight, it allocated a billion dollars in federal funding for that effort. 

The Dutch government, stung by the failure of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport to detect explosive elements on the would-be bomber, also implemented stronger security measures, with all U.S.-bound passengers now required to go through body scanners. The price tag for those machines is more than a million dollars. The amount the Dutch government is paying — so far — is zero. 

Europe is the only region in the world where airports pay for their own security measures. So the long list of additional regulations imposed since the 9/11 attacks by the European Union or individual governments — which can enact more stringent measures than the EU mandates — has cost airports a hefty sum, according to Airports Council International (ACI).

“Pre-9/11, the security costs at European airports were on average 5 to 8 percent of airport operating costs,” explained ACI's spokesman for Europe, Robert O’Meara. “Now security operations at European airports account for about 35 percent of operating costs. Every time a threat is revealed, that suddenly is a new excuse for a new layer of regulation that somebody else has to pay for.” 

Some airports are large enough and profitable enough to absorb most of the costs; others pass some portion on to airlines and passengers but still have trouble. In addition to the new expenses, O’Meara said, last year saw a loss of about 105 million air passengers, down from 1.47 billion previously. "Suddenly security has become a huge hole on the balance sheets,” he said — and that was before EU governments began looking seriously, prompted by the U.S., at requiring the use of full-body scanners, which cost $150,000 to $200,000 a pop.

Despite the enormous bill looming for the new machines, operating personnel and training at Schiphol, airport spokeswoman Mirjam Snoerwang said the scanners were on their way, as per the new government regulations. “Safety first,” she said. "We ordered [the scanners] and after we’re going to have a a discussion with the government [about] who is going to pay for the scans.”

Britain has joined the Netherlands in stepping up use of the machines, but other nations have said they will not do so without an EU-wide mandate, and cost isn't the only stumbling block.

The machines’ potential use has been debated for years, sometimes hotly. Last year the European Commission dropped a proposed measure that would have regulated the use of such equipment throughout the EU after the European Parliament said there were too many unanswered questions about the impact it would have on “human rights, privacy, personal dignity, health and data protection.”

In Germany recently, protesters in a "Flesh Mob" dropped their drawers in Berlin’s Tegel Airport to oppose the scanners, arguing that the scans could violate travelers' privacy:

The German government has remained noncommittal on whether it will require the scanners.

A special meeting of EU aviation experts on Jan. 7 failed to produce any clarity in policy. A statement issued after the meeting announced that the bloc is “considering an initiative on imaging technology to reinforce passenger security, while at the same time addressing the conditions for using such technology, in particular, privacy, data protection and health issues.”

The next attempt to harmonize the EU approach comes Thursday, as EU interior ministers meet in Toledo, Spain. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano will attend the meeting and is expected to press EU partners to make more use of the scanners.

But the Spanish presidency hosting the meeting isn’t itself a huge fan of the scanners and isn’t promising any big movement in the EU position — or rather the lack of one, at this point. Spanish presidency spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said her government’s goal is to “pursue a common position” regarding the larger questions of airport security. “Yes, we have to discuss how we can enhance security and how it can be done in a coordinated and efficient manner,” she said, “but this doesn’t mean tomorrow we are going to have a proposal on introducing scanners.”

That’s a delay that probably won’t bother the airports. O’Meara is careful not to give the impression that his organization wants to forego safeguards for financial reasons, but he warned that any new government regulations must be accompanied by new ideas on how to finance them. “(I)n the medium- to long-term, it’s not a sustainable situation for European airports,” he said. “People have been wondering what’s going to happen.”