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Brussels diamond heist highlights security holes

It was the night of Feb. 18, and it was about to go down.

Armed robbers dressed in police uniforms broke through a hole they had made in the security fence at Brussels Airport and took diamonds worth $50 million as they were being loaded into the cargo hold of a plane.

This diamond heist was only the latest in a long line of airport perimeter breaches.

On Nov. 21, 2011, a car drove through the perimeter fence at Miami International Airport (pictured above). Police found the car near the American Airlines cargo area. On March 1, 2012, a driver accelerated through a gate at Philadelphia International Airport and drove onto airport property as a plane took off. On Aug. 13, 2012, a man swam ashore to Kennedy International Airport, scaled a fence and walked into the airport.

“What gets a lot of times neglected in aviation security seems to be airport perimeter security, and at least in the U.S., we’ve had several incidents,” said Vahid Motevalli, an aviation security expert and the director of Purdue University’s Center for Technology Development. “It wasn’t necessarily terrorism, but it could’ve easily been terrorism, and getting access to the airport that easily is a real concern.”

And now Brussels Airport. As of Tuesday, the thieves have not been apprehended.

“For the most part, airports and aviation tend to focus on the passengers and the cargo and making sure no one’s carrying anything that will explode the plane,” said Brandon Fried, executive director of the U.S. Airforwarders Association. “It’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Securing high-end air cargo is a multi-faceted task. One step is securing the loading zone of the freighter.

Fried said freight forwarders, who frequently ship currency, have their own perimeter within their facilities.

“We constantly have to make sure that our perimeters are secure and our doors are locked and people are challenged in their credentials,” he said.

Russell Cason, spokesperson for Delta Air Lines, said when the airline transports precious cargo, the people shipping the cargo provide their own security.

“Delta itself of course provides security cameras,” Cason said. “We have camera security in our warehouses. Items of high value or what we call extraordinary value are kept in a secure location.”

Shipments of high value are anything valued at $25,000 or more.

Parul Bajaj, spokesperson for FedEx, said the company treats every package like it’s high-value, regardless of what it contains.

“Each plane, each box, each package goes through our secure network,” she said.

Packages are only handled by FedEx employees, who undergo screening when hired, Bajaj said. FedEx even moved the NFL Lombardi Trophy.

Another step of protecting high-end cargo is taking security measures at the airport’s perimeter – something that experts say is lacking.

“As Ranking Member of the House Homeland Security’s Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations and Management, I have been calling for a more comprehensive approach to airport perimeter security because there remains uneven enforcement from locality to locality,” Massachusetts Rep. Bill Keating said in a March 2012 press release.

And who is the gatekeeper?

Vahid Motevalli

“It’s not the airline’s responsibility, really,” Motevalli said. “It will lie with the airport or airport authority.”

Securing the fenced perimeter at Memphis International Airport is a joint effort between its tenants: FedEx, UPS, the Tennessee National Guard and the airport itself, said John Greaud, vice president of operations at the airport. Out of the nine-mile fence, FedEx is responsible for more than 2.5 miles – almost 30 percent of the fence line.