Albany County

Albany International Airport has undergone extensive changes in 20 years

The Albany International Aiport security checkpoint is crowded at midday Aug. 18, 2021.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

The Albany International Aiport security checkpoint is crowded at midday Aug. 18, 2021.

COLONIE — Few places offer a better public display of post-9/11 changes than an American airport, and Albany International Airport is no exception.

The travel hub off Albany-Shaker Road has been the starting point for millions of journeys since the morning 20 years ago when airliners were turned into weapons of terror. 

It’s also equipped with new technology designed to keep people with bad intentions and hidden weapons off planes, and it benefits from the presence of a national security force and an international intelligence network.

“9/11 really compelled this airport to re-evaluate our entire security program and our infrastructure from top to bottom,” said Doug Myers, the airport’s spokesman since January 1999.

Everyone from the airport runway firefighters to the FBI was involved in drawing up the blueprint, he said, and the result “was all-encompassing.”

The Transportation Security Administration and Albany County Sheriff’s Office employ the men and women who provide the feet-on-the-ground security at the airport, but they are just part of the overall picture. 

There’s an entire national and international infrastructure behind them dedicated to alerting airports to threats, and keeping those threats away from airports.

“We, TSA, are literally the last line of defense,” said Bart Johnson, federal security director for the 13 commercial airports north and west of Newburgh in upstate New York.

The first line of defense is developing intelligence on who might launch an attack, and when and how and where, Johnson said. “It’s all about identifying the things you know could go into a terror attack.”

BEFORE THE ATTACKS

In the year 2000, travelers boarded planes 1.46 million times at ALB, as it’s known in the aviation world. Each journey began with a trip through a security checkpoint run by a contractor that was one of an array of private companies using an assortment of equipment to keep American airports safe.

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the few hundred travelers who would depart from Albany that day made their way through the Albany checkpoint — bottles of water in hand, full-sized tubes of toothpaste in their carry-on bags, tied shoes on their feet, laptop computers drawing no scrutiny by security agents. 

Very soon, all of them would be back on the ground, some nowhere near their destination and with no immediate way to get there or get home, as American airspace was locked down and patrolled by combat-ready fighter jets.

Two decades later, with all that has come to pass, the security apparatus in place at American airports that morning seems almost quaint.

Extensive analysis of its failings and extensive upgrades would come soon enough. But as the attacks happened, and their enormity sank in, shock and horror were the ruling emotions on the ground. 

Myers recalled: “I was on the phone with Capt. Paul Courcelle of the Albany County Sheriff’s Office when he said, ‘Are you watching TV?’ That was the first I had learned of the attack.”

He recalls shedding tears at his desk later in the day.

The terminal was closed to people arriving for check-in, but travelers already inside were allowed to stay. Ground personnel made ready for airliners that would make unscheduled landings at the nearest airport as U.S. airspace was closed to civilian aircraft.

Access to the front of the terminal was blocked and additional police officers arrived to patrol the scene. Television trucks arrived and airport officials briefed the media.

Later in the day, rental cars driven north from New York City began to be dropped off, coated with a fine gray dust.

Local residents lit candles along the perimeter fence at the end of the runway.

AIRPORT UPGRADES

In the weeks that followed, air travel resumed to the point that 2001 was a busier travel year at Albany International than 2000.

But the airport experience would never be the same.

As the TSA and the technology it needed were being conceived and planned, soldiers in fatigues toting assault rifles provided a blunt-force security upgrade in the interim.

In the broad view, Myers said, what’s different today is an intricate combination of local, state and federal government security agencies working to identify and thwart threats; the arrival of the TSA; and technological innovations. 

Making it all work is the cooperation of the traveling public.

Someone in the throes of a stressful journey might seethe at having to strip off their shoes. For other travelers, particularly frequent fliers, it’s part of the routine, Myers said.

The changes at Albany International Airport since 9/11 include:

  • Nonticketed people can no longer go through the checkpoint except in limited circumstances, such as escorting a child or handicapped person.
  • Full-body scanners check passengers before they can get on a plane.
  • A blast-resistant wall stands between the surface parking lot and the terminal to thwart a car bomb.
  • Interior and exterior patrols have been increased.
  • All shipments arriving for airport concourse merchants are scanned.
  • Contractors have their tools inventoried when they arrive and when they leave.
  • Behind the scenes, an array of high-definition displays in the control center shows all areas of the airport. Its uses go beyond security: On a recent morning, a child with autism slipped away from his family and remained missing until the control center operator was alerted, and was able to find the missing child on a video monitor.

“It’s really a collective effort on the part of everyone at the airport,” Myers said.

CHANGE OF FOCUS

Johnson’s 44-year police and safety career has ranged from Peekskill Police Department patrolman to New York State Police colonel to deputy undersecretary for U.S. Homeland Security. 

But through all the years and agencies, there’s a distinct split in his duties that can be summarized as homeland security and “everything else.” The dividing line was 9/11.

“This is all I’ve been doing since that day,” he said in mid-August 2021.

Two friends Johnson worked with earlier in his career — New York Firefighter Sam Oitice and Port Authority Police Officer Paul Jurgens — perished in the Twin Towers’ collapse.

Days later, Johnson was among hundreds of state troopers assigned to ground zero. In the years to come, he would work to develop a terrorism preparedness, response and prevention capability within state police, which led to formation of its Office of Counter-Terrorism, with him as its commander.

Johnson moved to the Department of Homeland Security and had some of the same roles nationally, assisting the growing network of state and local counter-terror agencies across the country and directing creation of an intelligence-sharing network.

He went to work for the TSA in Albany in 2014 to be closer to home.

Albany International and other U.S. airports benefit from the intelligence-sharing network that formed and matured in the past 20 years, Johnson said, by which the CIA and NSA feed information to the FBI, which analyzes it and sends it to regional intelligence centers.

Rounding out the picture are police officers, customs agents and thousands of other people in the field on the watch for things that don’t quite look right, don’t quite add up — suspicious activity that might indicate more than simple criminal intent.

That network and all the technological improvements are designed to do one thing: Keep dangerous people and their weapons off planes.

Every year, guns and knives and other dangerous objects are seized at Albany International Airport, but most are ascribed to forgetfulness or ignorance. So far, none are known to have been part of a terror plot. Other U.S. airports have a similar record.

Some of this is likely due to the deterrent effect of what Johnson calls the last line of defense: the TSA airport checkpoint that shoeless travelers file through.

Next-generation computer technology is in place at Albany, including improved 3D visualization for luggage X-rays and CAT — Credential Authentication Technology, which verifies the validity of the traveler’s ID and cross references it with airline ticket records.

And more is on the way: TSA headquarters, Johnson said, “has a great cadre of experts working on the next generation of whatever it is.”

TERMINAL EXPANSION

One of the few things in the airport terminal that hasn’t changed since 9/11 is the airport terminal itself.

It was designed and built in the late 1990s without enough room for the expanded security apparatus that would be added just a few years later.

“This is all before 9/11,” Albany County Airport Authority CEO Philip Calderone said of the passenger arrival area. “Where you see the TSA was all open, what we call Times Square community-gathering space, and the TSA was fit into that space.”

As a result, the line to check through security can fill most of the second-floor vestibule area and stretch across the pedestrian bridge to the parking garage.

The Airport Authority is planning to replace the 12-foot-wide bridge by extending the second floor across to the garage — essentially forming a bridge that’s a couple hundred feet wide.

“You’ll accomplish two things by doing that,” Calderone said. “You’ll alleviate the congestion we experience now during peak periods but also you’ll create space” on the other side of the checkpoint where travelers can gather their families, reclaim their possessions and put on their shoes.

The $1 trillion infrastructure spending bill approved by the U.S. Senate would send $28 million to Albany International Airport for this and other projects. 

Previous COVID stimulus funding in 2020 allowed the airport to maintain its operations without any layoffs, despite the scarcity of air travelers.

It was, essentially, a lifeline: The funding kept the airport afloat.

This next round of funding is all about moving the airport forward and making it function better in the years to come, Calderone said.

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