Why the Hamburg International incident highlights wider airport security concerns

Aviation experts have questioned whether security at Hamburg International was strong enough following an incident last year. Patrick Atack investigates.

Hamburg Airport was shutdown after a man illegally accessed the runway. Credit: Bibiphoto/Shutterstock

On Saturday 4 November, a man in a civilian car broke through a security gate at Hamburg International Airport and held his four-year-old daughter as a “hostage”. He caused a shutdown of the airport for several hours but later gave himself up without resisting police. 

Although no one was seriously injured – or worse – the event raised serious questions about airport and runway security and a statement from the airport itself did little to clear up concerns.

The suspect drove through a security barrier and onto the tarmac at Hamburg Airport, parking the car under a Turkish Airlines aircraft that was preparing to take off, forcing the evacuation of everyone on board through a gangway.

“German airports are fundamentally very safe,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s spokesperson told reporters in Berlin.

“What we have now seen in Hamburg shows that time and again there are gaps in the concept, and that someone with high criminal energy who is also very desperate can manage to use such gaps.”

Swift security response

As a result of the incident, the airport was closed and 213 (119 take-offs and 94 landings) of the 286 flights scheduled for the day were suspended. Six departures and four arrivals were cancelled on Saturday and 17 inbound aircraft diverted to other airports, affecting a total of 3,200 passengers.

“The perpetrator used an act of brute force to gain access to a multi-security area,” Katja Bromm, head of communications at Hamburg Airport, explained following the incident.

“The car was driven through a security barrier at high speed. The driver took no account of whether he could injure or endanger himself, his passenger or the staff at the security gate.”

The security measures at Hamburg Airport comply with the legal requirements – in some cases they even exceed them.

Bromm said the priority of security forces was then to “stop the perpetrator(s) as quickly as possible”, highlighting the security measures at the airport.

“It goes without saying that the security measures at Hamburg Airport comply with the legal requirements – in some cases they even exceed them. In this case, too, the alarm chain and measures took effect immediately. That is why the security forces were on site so quickly.

“What is important here is the effective mix of technical measures and the physical presence of the security forces. The security forces were on site within minutes and flight operations were suspended,” she confirmed.

Normal operations resumed at the airport on 6 November, with Flughafen Hamburg, the airport operator, stating it would be reassing security at the airport.

Security measures not up to scratch?

But aviation experts said the incident raised serious questions regarding Hamburg International’s security arrangements. 

Aviation consultant Andrew Charlton described the incident as a lucky escape. 

“Hamburg was an example where an airport's barrier gate wasn’t as good as they thought it was. If an ordinary commercial consumer car can drive down the fence, then arguably, the fence isn’t very strong or isn’t strong enough,” he explained. 

Charlton, managing director of Aviation Advocacy, questioned whether deploying security staff on the perimeter gates is enough and suggested Hamburg could consider upgrading its technical security, along with its physical infrastructure. 

“You can drive at people and have no regard as to whether they’re going to live or die. But you’d have thought there were technical ways to stop that happening or certainly better ways… It’s not as if there aren’t suggestions and ideas out there.” 

Police officers and police cars at an entrance to the runway during the inscident at Hamburg Airport on 5 November 5 2023. Credit: Martin Ziemer/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Heinrich Großbongardt, an aviation analyst based in Hamburg, told German international news service Deutsche Welle that it was not the first incident to raise security concerns at Hamburg or other German airports. 

“Smaller airports certainly have deficiencies and sometimes eye-popping deficiencies,” Großbongardt said. He gave the examples of Hamburg, Berlin, and Dusseldorf airports being accessed by climate activists in 2023, which also resulted in unauthorised persons on the airport aprons. 

“In Germany, we have airports that are just surrounded by wire mesh fences, which can be easily overcome and can be easily breached. We have seen it several times and unfortunately, nothing happened,” Großbongardt lamented. 

While Geneva-based expert Charlton said perfect airport security systems are “impossible”, he did expect a review and potential upgrades to be built. 

“We’re lucky that no one got injured and no major damage was caused, but another vulnerability was exposed. All we can do is learn from these sorts of things,” he said.  

“I suspect the suppliers are going to be forming a fairly disorderly queue outside of Hamburg Airport.”