US Transport Security official says security “stellar” at SA’s main airports


A senior official from the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) says South Africa’s main airports, OR Tambo International in Johannesburg and Cape Town International, have security that is as good as those rated the most secure abroad.

The US Transport Security Administration was set up after the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11th 2001 and is responsible for US aviation security. As part of this task it cooperates with governments around the world, particularly those whose countries have direct flights to the US. This is part of its larger mandate, which also includes security at shipping ports and on railways.

Chris Hadinger, who is the TSA’s Representative in Southern Africa and works out of Johannesburg, says security at major South African airports is “stellar”. As points of departure for direct flights to the US, the international airports in Johannesburg are his focus, but he also has praise for security at SA’s regional airports.

Hadinger is one of 26 Transport and Security Administration Representatives outside the US tasked with maintaining relationships with foreign governments on airport security issues.

The TSA is in the process of selecting countries that it will recognise as having security that it considers to be of the same standard maintained at US airports. SA along with a number of Western European and Asian countries are on this TSA list, which is in the process of being drawn up.

In SA, Hadinger, who has been in the country for three years, works with the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) and the Airports Company of South Africa (ACSA), on aviation security. While the immediate concern of the TSA is the security around direct flights to the US, Hadinger says his agency regularly exchanges information with South Africa on a range of airline security issues.

Currently three airlines, South African Airways (SAA), and US airlines, Delta and United, fly directly between SA and the US. American Airlines is reportedly considering a direct flight from the US to Cape Town.

Despite a distant political relationship between the US and SA, Hadinger says there is close cooperation between the two countries on airline security matters.

“There is no question in my mind that the level of security here is stellar and getting better due to the heavy investment in technology,” says Hadinger. Hadinger gives much of the credit for this to the Director of Civil Aviation at the SACAA, Poppy Khoza, who he says has good experience in having worked with the International Civil Aviation Organisation and ensures a pro-active stance on security issues.

Hadinger is impressed that SA is about to install state of the art computed tomography (CT) scanners at security checkpoints at the main airports. This is similar to the type of CT technology used by radiographers in the medical field, and will allow for the greatly improved detection of threats. Combined with artificial intelligence algorithms and 3D imaging, the technology will allow shapes, such as that of a gun or a bomb, to be better recognised.

“We have a good relationship and a two way exchange of information,” says Hadinger. He says US has brought back best security practices from SA including what he termed an “innovative use of canines”, but he declined to go into details.

Last year SA officials visited the US for TSA workshops on the management of canine programmes, behaviour detection, and insider threats.

He said SA was highly aware of insider threats in “sterile” areas in which people and bags have already passed through security checkpoints. To counter this it is key to ensure background checks on employees, but also their perpetual vetting, Hadinger says.

While the US is highly aware of the threat of terrorism coming south from North, West, and East Africa, and regional problems with border security, good procedures can ensure that these threats are mitigated for airlines, Hadinger says. The TSA is keen that SA helps countries in the region improve security.

Countries or airports that do not have large budgets to invest in new technology and training can still ensure good security through creative techniques, he says. Above all it is important that their security officials use random patrols and checks to ensure that their actions are unpredictable.