It didn't take long for the debate over airport security to hit the highest echelons of the German government. On Wednesday, a major security breach at Munich's international airport resulted in the closure of a terminal building and the cancellation of 33 flights. On Thursday, German Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière said he would take a close look at the lapse and strengthen airport security as necessary.
He wasn't alone. In a meeting of EU interior ministers, together with US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, in Toledo, Spain on Thursday, the European Union and the United States agreed to improve the sharing of passenger data. The agreement came in response to the failed Christmas Day terror attack on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. In addition, the gathered officials agreed to work together to deploy better screening technologies.
The European Commission is currently evaluating the practicality of introducing body scanners at airports across the 27-member bloc. Napolitano said on Thursday that scanners "are not the deciding factor nor essential for guaranteeing safety," but added that the US plans to put 450 more scanners into operation at airports across the country this year.
Concerns are high in Germany following Wednesday's incident in Munich. During a routine security check, a man's laptop set off an alert for possible explosives. Personnel at the checkpoint, however, failed to stop the man before he gathered up his laptop and disappeared into the crowd. Several minutes elapsed before the police were notified of the breach and the man has yet to be found.
Many presume that the man, dressed in a suit and tie, was merely a businessman in a hurry to catch his plane and did not notice the alarm. But the incident has raised major questions about the efficacy of such checks.
German papers take a closer look at airport security on Friday.
The business daily Handelsblatt writes:
"The reaction (to security breaches) is always the same. Immediately, experts and politicians demand an intensification of security measures. This reflex may be understandable. All of us would like to think we are safe when we fly. It is hardly surprising that those responsible buckle under this enormous pressure. But this kind of knee-jerk response to danger, motivated by the desire to be seen to be doing something, threatens to become the danger itself."
"There are two fundamental misconceptions that characterize the current debate about air travel security. The first is the belief that the more intensely passengers are checked, the greater the security. Just how feeble this assumption is can be seen by looking at the normal activity inside an airport. Passengers are just one part of the people at the airport. The rest are people waiting outside the secure area for arrivals or those who just want to do a bit of shopping. They also represent a security risk."
"The second misconception: We can achieve close to 100 percent safety. It sounds good, but it is far removed from reality. We have to get used to the idea that we can never have complete security when it comes to air travel. Unless, of course, we stop flying altogether. Exactly that, though, is what many airline customers will do if the ongoing quest for ever greater security gets out of hand."
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"How can it be that a passenger in Germany's second largest airport can calmly wander off in the security area with a suspicious piece of hand luggage under his arm and disappear without trace? And how is it possible that the man, who paralyzed Munich airport for hours, had still not been identified on the following day, even though there is video footage of the incident at the security gate?"
"Although it seems as though the man in Munich was actually a harmless business traveler, his escape is practically an invitation for criminals to try doing the same thing. It is not just a single security official who has failed -- a whole range of security measures has been found wanting. The situation at Munich airport now needs to be thoroughly reviewed."
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"What has been happening in international airports for years is nothing but window-dressing. Pure symbolism. The misrepresentation of false security. People take off their shoes and reveal the holes in their socks. They give up their nail files and present the see-through plastic bag with the potion against hair loss that they smear on their heads. They are already baring themselves, even without body scanners."
"And members of the security staff become tired in the face of thousands of harmless business people who grumblingly open their laptops. They are worn down by the hundredth soda bottle that they have to take off some child. And they are irritated by having to reject an almost empty toothpaste tube just because it is bigger than 100ml. The actual security is getting lost in the tangled mass of harmlessness, and the airport security staff lose their sense of urgency. It is worn down by the routine. Checking passengers has become a mass business. Every day hundreds of thousands of them have to be funnelled through airports. Even if the security staff were extremely well trained and paid, at some stage they would lose their concentration."
"It is not possible to keep increasing security checks -- in the end the airports would just paralyze themselves. However, the checks have to become more intelligent. This is not, after all, about potentially dangerous objects -- there are enough of those behind the security barriers. It is about dangerous people, such as the Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who is accused of attempting to blow up an aircraft over Detroit on Christmas Day. The man was a known terrorism sympathizer, his own father had warned the US Embassy about his son -- and still the man was allowed to board a plane heading for America."
"Clever security checks means identifying these people before the flight. That means switching from quantity to quality. Yet no one will dare to do that, because it requires the courage to think outside the box. If there were another attack, then that courage would be construed as irresponsibility."