Managing Access and Authorities at Airports

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Managing Access and Authorities at Airports


The mix of people on site at an airport at any given time will include airport personnel, airline employees, contractors, vendors and travelers. To manage the complex permissions of who is authorized to go where inside and outside the facility, it’s imperative for airports to implement an access control system.

For many airports, strengthening access control means implementing a key control and management system to ensure that all keys, including those to sensitive areas, are properly secured and accounted for. When installed throughout the airport complex, the automated key control systems enable controlled access to keys and provide valuable forensic capabilities such as automated tracking, alarm and reporting functions.

Key Control Increases Security

Automated key control and management systems offer an increased level of security for an airport by preventing unauthorized key access and reducing the incidence of lost or misplaced keys. Tamper-proof cabinets are used to hold keys to sensitive or sterile airport areas, including ramps, operational spaces and other SIDA (Security Identification Display Area) spaces restricted from the general public. Authorized users with permission to enter these restricted areas unescorted can access keys which they have been pre-programmed to use by entering their PIN code and swiping a pre-issued badge. If the criteria entered matches the information stored in the system data base, the key cabinet will unlock and the necessary key can be removed or returned.

Following are more specific ways key control and management systems are designed to improve airport operational security.

  • Actionable Information ̶ Operational security and efficiency is further improved because all key access activity is automatically recorded including user, date and time of key access/return. Scheduled reports of which keys are in or out and who has/had them keeps airport security management informed. Administrators can request programmed reports to trace key movements by time, date and user code. If an incident occurs, during the follow-up investigation, management can query the system for specific details such as a listing of all transactions between certain times. Or, immediately following an incident, a report can be generated showing which keys are signed out and who last accessed them. Real-time audit reports can also track keys in use, overdue or lost keys, the location of a stored key (i.e. which key cabinet in the system) and any inconsistent key usage.

When time is of the essence, the up-to-date and reliable information provided by a key control and management system’s reporting can provide a strong evidence trail allowing airport personnel to enforce established procedures regarding secure areas.

  • System Integrity ̶ Key control and management systems may also incorporate additional security features to help maintain the integrity of the system and provide enhanced security. For example, when an authorized user accesses a key, a numeric code can appear on the display and that code must be entered at secure doors when using the key. As an added safety measure, alarms can be triggered for certain predetermined circumstances such as the use of force to gain access or remove a key, invalid user codes, a door left open for more than 10 seconds after use, power failure, a key missing or not returned on time, or a key returned by the wrong user. Further, systems can require multiple users to log in before releasing certain keys, meaning that two or three different users (for example, two managers and their subordinate) must be present in order to release sensitive keys.

Locking devices can also be attached to the keys to prevent users from swapping out the real key for another. These can be color-coded for organizational purposes. For example, this can help airport management organize keys for sensitive or sterile areas. The color-coding system also means that individual keys need not be labeled as to their purpose. If a key is lost, not only does the system flag this missing key, but it also eliminates any immediate identity issues.

Integrated / Networked Systems Improve Operational Efficiency & Convenience

Today’s sophisticated key management systems bear little resemblance to manual processes in the past. Now, these systems are designed with an open architecture platform to enable network connectivity to access control and other systems provided by a range of integration partners for multiple levels of security and control.

  • Operational Efficiency ̶ Optimizing the key management and access control technology within a facility through system integration pays impressive rewards in improved security and system efficiency. The technology can usually be integrated with the existing physical security system without costly upgrades or overhauls. For example, asset control systems featuring alarm and relay inputs/outputs can be integrated with existing video surveillance systems for additional security. Ethernet and USB capability help to ensure system compatibility and integration. Systems can also integrate with the airport’s existing identification cards.

Integration with access control also allows system administrators to regulate the area of movement within the building for staff with keys. An authorized airport employee who has taken a specific, high-value key can be denied egress from the facility via an access-controlled door until the key is returned. The parameters can be applied to users, keys, groups of keys, time constraints, and reservations. Or, when high security keys are involved, specific management can be alerted via email if that particular key has not been returned on time.

  • Operational Convenience ̶ Compatibility with other security systems and network access offers an added richness and usability to airport security management. Integration with existing databases can also save time and money, by using a common front-end database to synchronize programming. Transactions such as adding or deleting users are easier and provide more efficient administrative control. Adding or deleting contractors and other non-permanent airport staff is just as easy, and the information is automatically distributed to all key cabinets within the system.
  • Mobile Capability ̶ Mobile applications are quickly becoming a preferred platform for airport security managers accessing key control data and even to perform transactions. The result is improved safety and integrity of the airport. Advanced communication capabilities enable key control systems to be monitored and administered remotely from PDAs or smartphones as well as from the desktop. Apps for automated key control systems enable users to maintain control of keys no matter their location. At any time, an authorized user can see real time transactions and information about keys that are in use and any keys that are overdue, as well as about where and when alarms may have been triggered or overall system status. For investigative purposes, for example, managers can even review key usage to determine who may have last accessed a key for a vehicle that was found to be damaged.

Notifications and events are automatically sent to authorized airport personnel for real-time awareness and management, and allowing them complete control of the system. They can cancel an alarm and even, if necessary, remotely disable user privileges. These features, along with many others, provide the mobile user with a greater level of convenience and control when it comes to key control management in an airport environment.

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Outside the Terminal

Improvements that strengthen an airport’s access control should not stop at the terminal. Remotely located buildings such as fire stations, administrative facilities, control towers and even hangars can pose a challenge for management in terms of keeping the buildings secured and safe from break-ins, vandalism and other unwanted access. Since these locations are not connected to the main terminals, providing access can also create a challenge when it is necessary for maintenance crews and other workers to have access to certain or all areas within these buildings.

  • Common Concerns – Will employees remember to return the keys? Will the facility be properly locked upon exit? Will accurate time logs be kept? Automated key control and management systems installed at the remote facilities can help eliminate these issues. More efficient than requiring employees to pick up and return keys to/from a central office, on-site networked key control systems with tracking capability offer an easy-to-use alternative. Illuminated key slots to locate keys, random return capability and user prompt screens with tailored messages all help make systems easier and more efficient for even the occasional users.

Key control systems can be programmed remotely to meet the requirements of airport and federal government regulations as well as setting time and date parameters for each user, which can also help to ensure the deterrence and detection of unwarranted access to controlled areas within the facility. Using PIN codes or biometric authentication, remotely located systems make it easier for authorized users to access keys when needed and for security management to be more assured about the building’s security.

  • Accountability Beyond Security – In a real-life example, United Airlines Jet Rebuild and Test Facility in San Francisco keeps track of valuable tools using a key control and management solution. At the facility where United brings its jets for rebuilding, each mechanic is provided with the specific tools and test equipment needed for the job at hand. The items, some of which have values up to $20,000 each, are kept in locking toolboxes and the toolboxes are kept in assigned areas relating to the project. The shop uses the integrated key control system to store the keys for the toolboxes and to enable complete control of who has access to individual keys and when that access is authorized.

The system can be accessed through an IP network from anywhere in the building and this online control enables airline management to administer the system and know from their own desktop computer who has any key. An audit trail tracks data regarding who removed any key, when it was taken and when it was returned. Activity reports provide complete information on which keys come and go, at what time and on what day. The information provides insight into usage trends that could help the facility better understand the operation and any opportunities for improvement, such as a need for additional equipment or improved alternative scheduling.

Planning for the Future

Changes to the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, airport expansion, policy changes and system upgrades are just some of the circumstances that can affect an existing or planned implementation of a key control and management system. Several options and design variations are available to customize a solution and help protect the airport’s investment as needs grow and change.

Hundreds of key control and management systems are already installed and in use in airports around the world, providing tangible benefits and supporting airport management in the achievement of safety and operational goals. As described above, in some of these installations, further enhancing integration with related systems could provide further improvements and benefits. In either case, for both new airport installs or enhancements, administrators can be confident that they are not only improving their local security posture but also thereby improving the safety of the entire global air transport system.

Tim Purpura
Tim Purpura
VP Global Sales & Marketing

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