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Cologne airport fails security, privatization blamed

Kathleen SchusterApril 18, 2016

Inspectors recently smuggled dangerous objects through Cologne-Bonn Airport, sometimes even when personnel knew they were being tested. It's not the first time German airports have fallen short.

Security checkpoint at Cologne
Image: Getty Images/J.Koch

Regular airline travelers know the security drill: jacket off, send your personal belongings down the conveyor belt, go through the metal detector - hoping you're not the person who forgot about having a pocketful of coins - and then awkwardly grab your stuff while trying to get out of the way.

Or, alternatively, as in my case recently, you don't even make it to the metal detector because a security worker has rejected your idea of storing liquids in a see-through Tupperware container. So, you get sent to the back of the line where you must buy a plastic bag the same size as the Tupperware container for a euro (or $1.13 for the outraged American traveler).

The hassle pales, however, in comparison to the level of concern in the wake of the attack on Brussels Airport and, in Germany, "Islamic State's" recent threat against the Cologne-Bonn Airport.

Despite the high priority for safety, a report by German broadcaster WDR has shown that the Cologne-Bonn Airport's security failed to detect dangerous objects in carry-ons during a recent inspection. These revelations have revived old questions about aviation safety and who should work in security in Germany.

Cologne not the first

According to their findings, EU inspectors conducted 24 tests between February 8 and February 11 at the airport, which handles over 9 million passengers a year.

Of the secret attempts to smuggle weapons and bombing-building materials, they only detected the illegal items six out of 12 times.

When forewarned, the rate actually worsened: they failed to find nine out of 12 dangerous objects.

A woman holds a plastic bag filled with tubes and containers that container liquids
The European Commission established a common rule of aviation security. It revises those rules every few years to respond to new threatsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

This isn't the first time EU inspectors have flagged a German airport. In December 2014, security at Frankfurt Airport - a major international hub with more than 60 million passengers a year - failed every other attempt to detect weapons or improvised explosive devices. Its rate had worsened from 2006, when it only failed roughly a third of the time during a test by German federal police.

Frankfurt officials responded by retraining 2,500 of its employees.

During the same week, Düsseldorf Airport also underwent a similar police inspection and, also, had a low success rate, according to news magazine Spiegel-Online.

By May of 2015, the European Commission filed a suit against Germany at the Court of Justice of the European Union for insufficient security at a number of airports, whose names weren't disclosed, and for failing to improve conditions after a previous warning.

The 'human factor'

The latest case has revived a disagreement between Germany's police, its Interior Ministry and private companies over how to ensure the implementation of EU regulations, which dictate screening requirements and, for example, what liquids passengers may carry on board.

A common problem has been what the European Commission called in its 2014 assessment of EU aviation security the "human factor issue." The German Federal Police Union calls it a problem of poorly educated private sector employees.

A German police officer brandishes an assault rifle
Directly after the Brussels bombings, Germany and other countries responded by deploying more police to transportation hubs, such as Frankfurt AirportImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

According to TÜV, one of Germany's many firms that offer security training, the courses for training to work in passenger and freight inspection last up to two months. Participants are trained, for example, how to use x-ray scanners, how to detect dangerous objects and chemicals, and conflict management.

But Germany's federal police union questions how effective private sector training is.

"Too much attention is paid to speed and reducing costs - and much too little to security," Police Union representative Ernst Walter told public broadcaster, WDR.

Of the nearly 10,000 security workers across German airports, the union says only 600 are police.

Moreover, a police union leader from Düsseldorf also told WDR that authorities were concerned about their inability to monitor private security personnel past the initial background check, which could leave airports vulnerable to internal security risks.

But, the interior ministry has rejected calls to de-privatize airport security, pointing to the trend among other EU states.

Private security disagrees

The security firm Kötter Services, which operates at Cologne Airport, rejected the criticism from the country's federal police union, saying the training structure lay in the hands of the government.

"The state makes the rules and, by doing so, sets quality standards of what and how tasks are to be fulfilled. It regulates training, testing and skill enhancement and ensures inspection and documentation," the German-based firm told WDR.

Germany's Association of Airports (ADV) confirmed to DW in a written statement that the "aviation safety authorities are responsible for the training specifications, inspection and oversight of security personnel."

However, given the problems uncovered by EU agents, "the private security providers must address these deficiencies."

A picture of Cologne Bonn Airport crowded by passengers
Rising passenger numbers is putting more pressure on airports to be both cost-effective and safe. Frankfurt expects up to 73 million customers by 2021Image: dapd