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Airport security put to the test

Troops dealt with potential terrorists and deadly viruses

(Keystone)

Terrorist attacks have wiped out most of Europe's airports, leaving Zurich's as one of the few still standing. That was a fictional scenario used to test security at the airport.

Plane crashes and virus-infected passengers were also included.

The two-day emergency exercise, codenamed "Caramba", also envisaged a major plane crash at the airport, the arrival of an aircraft full of virus-carrying passengers and repeated terrorist attempts to breach the airport's perimeter.

After more than 15 years of exclusive responsibility for the airport, the fourth regiment soldiers taking part in operation Caramba seemed to be enjoying the chance to put their training into practice.

But officials were keen to stress that this was more than just a leisurely wargame.

"We're working through some scenarios that could really happen," Zurich airport CEO Josef Felder told swissinfo.

"It's especially important for the army troops that they get to do these exercises at the airport itself because we've never done that before, at least not to this level of complexity."

Although safety and security have always been integral to the successful running of modern airports, the September 11th terrorist attacks have greatly increased awareness of the issue both among specialists and the general public.

With some 200 security personnel working to an annual budget SFr74 million ($56 million), Felder says safety at Zurich involves more than just a two-day training exercise.

Challenging

"The events of the past two years have been really challenging for all of us and particularly our crisis organisation.

"On a daily basis we've had to look very carefully at the safety measures being introduced around the world and decide if they would be effective for us.

"It's become our core competence for us to continually look at the threats that exist and to check for any weak points in our security arrangements."

Although passengers arriving at Zurich during the exercise may have noticed an unusually high level of army personnel, the operation was designed to run without causing disturbances to the regular smooth running of the airport.

Police co-operation

The exercises themselves were intended to foster similarly smooth handovers in the security operations of military troops and civilian police, with previous operations having suggested that this could be a problem area.

Unsurprisingly the head of the canton's police force, Rita Führer, was taking a keen interest in proceedings.

Standing in a quarantine tent hastily-constructed for a planeload of virus-carrying refugees, Führer said she was impressed by what she had seen.

"We need exercises like this because you can't work these things out just using theory," Führer told swissinfo.

"I'm interested in how the forces co-operate but also in seeing how long it takes them to get through the exercises. Only then can I evaluate how well we are using our resources.

"I think it's important that the exercises are as lifelike as possible, and that they should set a rewarding challenge for all those taking part. I think in any profession, people work better when they find themselves emotionally engaged."

If the events envisaged in operation Caramba ever did come true, there would certainly be no lack of emotional engagement among those involved.

Following September 11th, the war in Iraq and the outbreak of Sars though, airport staff are hoping that their fictional dramas can help prevent further real-life crises.

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

Airport security

Around 2,300 security personnel took part in the exercise, including army troops from the airport regiment.
Scenarios included terrorist attacks and air crashes.
Zurich airport spent SFr74 million on security last year.

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