Leaked EU inspections reports raised concerns about civil aviation security in Belgium

Following a leak to media of the Commission’s inspection reports on civil aviation security at Belgian airports, Jaqueline Galant was forced to resign as transportation minister on 15 April. At the time of her resignation the European Commission declined to comment on the reports.

As reported by The Brussels Times on 16 April (see here), the director of Brussels Airport, Arnaud Feist, criticized reports in media on shortcomings at the airport. “We are safe,” he said. “If we were not safe, we would not have received all permits required to carry out our business.”

The two leaked reports, both about 14 pages long, are dated July 2011 and April 2015. They list a number of main findings and recommendations for action.

Regular inspections by the Commission of Belgian airports have taken place every four year since 2004. An inspection consists normally of two parts: a system review of the implementation of the national control program and an on-site verification of the national controls of a specific airport (Liege in 2010 and Antwerp in 2015).

Findings relating to one airport might also be relevant for the other airports. The Commission wrote that in recent years, Brussels airport was hardly subject to any monitoring by the Belgian civil aviation authority and the audit did not cover security measures.

In both reports the Commission found that the Belgian control measures were not based on an explicit risk assessment. Different aspects of the Belgian monitoring activities were found “not compliant” with EU rules or “not compliant with serious deficiencies.”

A general recommendation in the 2015 inspection report was that major airports with an annual traffic volume of more than 2 million passengers should be inspected covering all security aspects at least every 12 months.

The reports were classified as “EU restricted” which is the lowest classification level (after top secret, secret and confidential). According to the Commission’s classification of documents, “restricted” means that any disclosure could be “disadvantageous to the operational effectiveness and security of a member state”.

Questions about the reports

Since the leak of the reports, EU sources have addressed some questions that The Brussels Times asked about them.

The European Commission has declined to comment whether any press releases were issued about the reports when they were sent to the Belgian civil aviation authority. Although the reports were classified, the public could have a right to know that the reports existed and were acted on. In the Belgian case the minister concerned claimed that she was not aware about them.

When confronted by The Brussels Times, a European Commission official said that the Commission does not comment on the individual findings of its aviation security inspection activities. “The reports are classified and cannot be disclosed for security reasons.”

The reports mention that explosive detection systems and explosive detection dogs were not regularly monitored at the inspected airports. Do EU rules and standards require such systems outside the terminal and in the departure hall?

According to EU sources, the leaked reports do not relate specifically to Zaventem and “there are no indications that aviation security measures are or were not up to the EU standards at Brussels airport.” The EU is competent only for the airside parts of the airport, “i.e. those restricted parts only accessible to passengers with a valid boarding pass.”

“The EU has no competence for the landside part of the airport. Those are the areas publically accessible (departure hall, train station, etc.). The security of the landside is a national prerogative. The level of compliance with EU aviation security measures is therefore not the issue.”

The latest inspection report, dated 28.4.2015, urged the Belgian authorities to submit an action plan to address the shortcomings identified in the report. The Commission declined to clarify if and when such an action plan has been submitted and, if so, what was the Commission’s assessment of it.

The two leaked reports indicated that the number of Belgian auditors for monitoring civil aviation security had decreased from 2.5 to 2 since 2011 (in full-time equivalents) but did not specify  how many auditors would be required to fully audit the airports in Belgium and cover all aspects of civil aviation security.

A crucial point in the Commission’s inspection reports is obviously their scope and coverage. On the one hand the Commission explains that the inspection only concern “the airside areas” of the airports, in particular to insure that “no prohibited items (weapons, explosives) are brought into an aircraft departing from a European airport.”

On the other hand, the Commission explains that “In practice, the scope of inspections may differ but generally it covers all main security requirements implemented at the airport. This normally includes access control to the airport, screening of staff and vehicles, screening of passengers and baggage…”

The Commission claims that from a security standpoint, airports are among the most regulated and controlled spaces.

Background information on the European Commission’s inspections

The European Commission regularly carries out aviation security inspections in all EU Member States to verify compliance with the common aviation security standards applicable in the EU.

The European Parliament and the national governments made this a requirement under EU law: Monitoring regulation (EC) No 300/2008 establishing common rules in the field of civil aviation security.

The European Commission directly employs 9 full-time inspectors and in addition has at its disposal some 100 qualified inspectors made available by Member States for occasional deployment in Commission inspections.  There are on average 35 inspections per year of both civil aviation authorities and airports.

The EU rules foresee a two-level oversight system:

Primary oversight is the responsibility of Member States and each Member State has to appoint an appropriate authority responsible for monitoring the correct implementation of aviation security requirements.

The Commission is required to carry out inspections of the correct implementation by Member States. This includes inspections of the “appropriate authority” in the Member State as well as inspections at airports, air carriers and entities implementing security measures.

EU legislation lays down common basic standards for aviation security to be implemented by all Member States regarding security checks at the airport. Common basic standards comprise:

  screening of passengers, cabin baggage and hold baggage

  airport security (access control, surveillance)

  aircraft security checks and searches

  screening of cargo and mail

  screening of airport supplies

  staff recruitment and training

Commission inspections only concern the airside areas of airports. They serve to ensure that EU standards are fully implemented by Member States.

If an inspection discloses shortcomings, Member States are required to take appropriate action to swiftly rectify the shortcomings and if needed, apply compensatory measures in the meantime.

The Brussels Times

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