Ramon International Airport: securing a diamond in the desert

Ramon International Airport: securing a diamond in the desert

Ramon International Airport is the newest addition to the Israel Airports Authority’s list of operational assets. In this article Nissim Ben-Ezra and Roni Tidhar walk us through Ramon’s unique security challenges and tell us what it takes to ensure this desert diamond is secure.

Inaugurated in April 2019, Israel’s new Ramon International Airport is located 19km north of Eilat, which is Israel’s most southern city and one of its prime rest and relaxation destinations (as well as being a VAT-free zone). The airport is named after both Ilan Ramon and his son, Asaf. Ilan was the first Israeli NASA astronaut, and was killed on-board the Columbia space shuttle when it exploded on its way back to Earth in February 2003. In a macabre twist of fate, his son, Asaf, an Israel Defence Force pilot, also died in an aviation-related accident when his F-16A fighter jet crashed during a training flight in September 2009. The new airport’s dramatic scenic location was determined by the government following the consideration of several factors:

  • The economic and social need to develop Eilat and the southern regions of Israel;
  • The need for the airport to be an acceptable travelling distance from the city of Eilat;
  • To be in an area large enough to allow the construction of all the facilities necessary for the designated aviation and passenger traffic;
  • Locating a site where the topography was suited for airport construction;
  • Meeting civil aviation regulatory demands, and;
  • Following an environmentally-sensitive considered approach, important for the conservation of wildlife and nature reserves in the vicinity of the site.

With these issues in mind, the optimal location was identified 19km north of Eilat, less than 15km from the Egyptian border and around 40km from Jordan’s border with Saudi Arabia. However, perhaps most critically, the airport’s perimeter fence is a mere 100 metres from the Jordanian border. Due to Jordan’s Aqaba International Airport being a few kilometres south-east and parallel to Ramon’s runway, there were, and still are, some aviation conflicts to resolve. For example, landing is considerably more difficult for pilots, and maintaining air traffic control is harder and more sensitive due to the need to ensure flights do not cross into another country’s airspace.

“…the airport’s perimeter fence is a mere 100 metres from the Jordanian border…”

Ramon International was designed as a green airport project, developed on a virgin desert terrain and intended to serve both international and domestic traffic, replacing the former Eilat domestic airport, which was located in the heart of the city. Eilat airport had limited the ability to develop the city’s municipal capacity and had a relatively short runway. Therefore, most international flights were operating to the more remote Ovda Air Force base, around 60km from the city centre; somewhat too far to encourage international tourist travellers and certainly not an option for day-trip domestic commuter travel between Eilat and Israel’s main population and administrative centres in and around Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Credit: Google Maps
Credit: Google Maps

From a strategic point of view, Ramon was also planned to serve as an emergency alternate destination to Israel’s main gateway, Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. Though declared by the government to serve an important national need, Ramon International was built and financed by the Israel Airports Authority (IAA), at a cost of US $450m (c. £365m). Initial plans were changed due to the government’s decision to use it as a back-up airport for multiple emergency scenarios. For that reason, 54 parking stands for various aircraft were prepared, enabling simultaneous occupancy for domestic fleets and supporting other crisis situation necessities.

Covering some 3,450 acres of land, Ramon International Airport has a 3,600m long, 60m wide runway, enabling the take-off of large jet planes including Boeing 747s and Airbus 350s to possible destinations in Europe, the USA, Africa, and Central and East Asia. A parallel taxiway to the runaway allows for a smoother, more efficient operation (this was absent from the former Eilat airport where aircraft had to taxi on the runway itself). The spacious new passenger terminal covers some 34,000m2 and is designed to serve, initially, up to two million passengers annually but has the potential to be expanded to accommodate additional traffic of up to four million passengers. The building offers a unique environmental design, offering breath-taking views of its dramatic surroundings and integrating innovative commerce solutions between tax-free shopping and VAT-only free (for domestic passengers) because of dual-use of boarding gates (which can alternate between serving domestic and international flights without the need for artificial physical separation and supporting the proper supervision of duty-free restrictions).

The planning, design and building of an advanced ‘state-of-the-art’ security array

The international civil aviation industry has long been a target of terrorist attacks. Therefore, alongside regular civil aviation operations, airports conduct comprehensive security processes, which involve extensive manpower, expensive technological systems and involve complex procedures entailing massive financial investment. At times, these may cause long queues and discomfort for passengers, affecting both ‘lingering time’ in commercial areas within the airport and passengers’ inclinations to spend money there. This was to be avoided.

“…facilitating effective ballistic rocket and missile defence countermeasures – a straight-line fence is easier to control …”

As an international airport, Ramon complies with international safety and security regulations (ICAO’s Annexes 14 and 17 standards). Meanwhile, as an Israeli international airport, it also meets the strict standards deriving from Israel’s own governmental regulators. We are also faced with additional new challenges like extreme weather, human resource obstacles resulting from its location (no adjoining towns), and difficulties coordinating with different jurisdictions without whose consent we could not open and operate the airport in terms of security. Another angle which required our attention was IAA’s decision to create a relaxed ambience in the terminal; a casual, easy-going ‘airport in sandals’ image. Such a laid-back atmosphere is difficult to achieve from a security perspective.

Creating an airport in such a remote location also necessitated our solving challenges such as delivering technical support in minimal reaction times, recruiting sufficient employees, and creating dedicated training facilities. But it simplified other traditional problems by allowing staff to design and prepare better solutions for perimeter security, as well as facilitating effective ballistic rocket and missile defence countermeasures –a straight-line fence is easier to control.

“…decision to create a relaxed ambience in the terminal, a casual easy-going ‘airport in sandals’ image…”

Initially, the project’s architects and engineering administration had intended to engage an external security consulting company to design the airport. However, as the project advanced, it was determined that the IAA’s rich in-house knowhow and expertise, respected world-wide, were resources that should not be dismissed. Eventually, the planning of the security processes at Ramon Airport was carried out by teams comprised of security experts and managers from both Eilat and Ben-Gurion airports, closely accompanied by the guiding regulatory bodies, whose task was to design Ramon International with advanced security processes, measures and checks, including the following:

Counter-missile border fence at Ramon International Airport (Credit: Israel Airports Authority)
Counter-missile border fence at Ramon International Airport (Credit: Israel Airports Authority)
  • Mapping all airport processes involving security and applying appropriate procedures and technological measures and solutions;
  • Security-check systems for both passengers (checkpoints) and luggage (custom-made hold baggage screening – HBS), compliant with Israeli and international standards. The systems are both ‘state-of-the-art’ and able to handle traffic capacities, they can be extended and adjusted according to activity levels and security requirements;
  • Security-check systems for airport employees entering restricted areas and operational zones, equipped with advanced detection and control means;
  • Specifying expected Service Level Agreement (SLA) as a standard for waiting times in different security queues alongside other airport services;
  • Controlling and securing the airport, at all premises, through intricate low- voltage systems;
  • Hiring security employees who are adequately experienced and skilful (which entailed large-scale recruitment and adapting efficient training processes), and;
  • Ensuring security staff receive adequate and effective training and verifying their knowledge of airport security processes and technologies.

Outcomes

Due to the potential for terror attacks instigated from foreign soil (primarily from Jordan) against taxiing aircraft, and flights during their take-off and landing phases, by means of weapons, anti-tank rockets and MANPADS, it was decided that a security fence, 4km long and 30m high, should be constructed alongside the runway. This delicate situation requires both a physical solution and security-response capability, which are conducted through coordination with partners from Israel’s security community including, amongst others, the Israel Defence Force (with its various branches), the Ministry of Defence, Israel Police, Migration & Population Authority, and Israel Customs.

We also had to acknowledge the possibility of tunnelling (Israel’s experience in border protection has necessitated a response toterrorists inflitrating Israel through tunnels burrowed beneath its international borders) beneath the airport perimeter and orchestrate operational response measures. Ballistic rockets and missile defensive national capabilities can be activated to safeguard the airport should that threat be realised.

The old Eilat Airport was in the city centre.
The old Eilat Airport was in the city centre.

Selecting modern and advanced security technologies

Tens of millions of dollars have been invested in technological security systems in order to secure Ramon Airport, with particular attention paid to passenger security checks and physical landside security. They are successfully operated by the airport’s security units and include the following:

  • Advanced defensive measures: an array of electronic sensitive perimeter fences and gates integrated with induction systems warn of every infiltration attempt from the airport’s external as well as internal aerial premises. All these are controlled from a central security centre. Vehicle-based security patrol teams are prepared to respond to any alert;
  • Anti-terror gates and barriers resistant to vehicle ramming attempts;
  • Passenger security: advanced systems for passengers’ hold-luggage (HBS). Luggage sorting apparatus are comprised of advanced automated screening systems, to which unique cutting-edge explosive detection techniques have been especially developed. A spacious centre has been dedicated for passenger checkpoints, which includes designated screening lanes based on advanced systems for the detection of relevant threats. In order to facilitate future requirements, the centre has been planned so as to integrate mechanical systems for carrying passengers’ luggage, and is currently preparing for the instalment of tray return systems (TRS) (operational in 2020) as well as other advanced apparatus for cabin luggage;
  • Airport’s other users: a progressive biometric interface has been built in the employees’ entrances in the terminal as well as at vehicle checkpoints to the airside. In addition, sophisticated systems have been installed in order to screen employees and their personal effects. These include video surveillance methodologies, screening systems, explosive detection means and advanced entrance-control means;
  • Sophisticated CCTV systems enable advanced multi-weather supervision of all airport premises, and;
  • Cutting-edge command and control security systems have been installed, which enable the integration of indications and response.

“…extreme heat during summertime, the severe cold of desert nights, rare but harmful floods, strong gusts of wind rolling across the flat terrain, dust storms…”

Credit: Nick Haftun
Credit: Nick Haftun

Unique challenges are combatted by:

  • Interactive coordination for the purpose of providing wide-range response during serious security and safety events are being developed with surrounding authorities and regional security elements. For first response and reinforcement, this cooperation is based on coordination procedures and joint communication systems, practiced, exercised and drilled on a regular basis;
  • Recruitment and preservation of the workforce is a challenge due to the significant distance from central Israel. The issue is being combatted by means of targeted job opportunity efforts and high salaries, sustained by logistic solutions and creating a sense of comradery, attracting the desired personnel. Yet, in order to meet the government’s societal objectives, most of the airport’s employees are local residents, thereby bolstering the regional economy;
  • Remoteness also constitutes a problem for immediate technical maintenance support. This is handled through well thought through service contracts by IAA technical teams recruited specifically to be based in Ramon’s area, as well as by ongoing maintenance efforts to avoid failures and crises;
  • Using some specific technological shielding solutions helped us to deal with the extreme weather that is characteristic of this area – extreme heat during summertime, the severe cold of desert nights, rare but harmful floods, strong gusts of wind rolling across the flat terrain, dust storms and, indeed, dust on a regular basis, and the reflection of strong sunlight;
  • Close supervision of bird-migration (a safety issue but can create some security challenges as well), and;
  • IT/OT security blanket was placed by our cyber branch, as in other IAA infrastructure.

It is really a diamond in the desert – and we are securing it as such.

Credit: KOKO4
Credit: KOKO4

“…extreme heat during summertime, the severe cold of desert nights, rare but harmful floods, strong gusts of wind rolling across the flat terrain, dust storms…”

Credit: Nick Haftun
Credit: Nick Haftun

Nissim Ben-Ezra

Nissim Ben-Ezra is a civil aviation security expert with over 25 years of diverse experience. He started working for the Israel Airports Authority as a security ground marshal, was promoted to command the Allenby International border crossing terminal with Jordan, and then became manager of several units and departments within Ben-Gurion International Airport Security Division. He was appointed Head of Passenger Security, managing over 1,500 employees and is now IAA’s Head of Security for International & Domestic Airports and International Border Crossings. He also worked for El Al Israeli Airlines for several years.


Roni Tidhar has served for the past three years as Israel Airports Authority’s Head of International Consulting Services – commercial branch. He has vast experience in civil aviation security and emergency management from his 27 years in Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport Security Division and many years parallel to that as an El Al Israeli Airlines air marshal as well as Operational Flights Security Manager – working in dozens of airports across the globe.