Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport is the international airport of Suriname in South America. With one of the longest runways in the Caribbean region, in 2010 it served the Antonov An-225a – the world’s largest cargo plane – and in 1937 facilitated Amelia Earhart on her second attempt to circumnavigate the world by air. The airport is 52 kilometres (32 miles) away from the capital city Paramaribo and serves as the hub for Surinam Airways. In December 2019, after 24 years of operation, the airport welcomed its 500,000th passenger in a single year, which is nearly equivalent to the total population in Suriname. The airport, managed by Airport Management Ltd, has, as one of its key objectives, to realise its annual one millionth passenger by 2033. In an interview with Shalini Levens, the airport’s CEO Timothy Mendonça and Deputy Head of Security Derrick San A Jong discuss the expansion and the preparation from a security perspective.
In 2019, Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport experienced a decent growth rate of 13% in passenger numbers, mainly achieved by the new routes established by Suriname’s low-cost carrier, Fly All Ways, as well as by Copa Airlines, Trans Guyana Airways and TUI Fly. A new airport terminal with a capacious arrival and departure hall is planned for the near future – the result of investment from China – as the current airport terminal cannot facilitate an increasing number of passengers. Mendonça explains that, “Suriname is looking into new markets through bilateral- and open-skies agreements with China, the United Arab Emirates and a few other countries”. Furthermore, Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport is making a continuous effort in route development management to attract more airlines. The recent discovery of a significant oil field off the coast of Suriname is likely to bring increased potential for the Surinamese economy and GDP which will, in turn, increase the demand for air traffic.
San A Jong, a senior aviation security expert is looking forward to the developments and challenges ahead as he oversees the security operations, recruitment of security staff and training. He states that, “direct flights from Suriname to the United States (which requires the adoption of certain TSA requirements and ICAO standards from both the airline and the airport) demonstrate that the airport succeeds in operating at a competent and consistent standard”. Nevertheless, “the standards of today might expire tomorrow”, says San A Jong, so it is crucial to continuously monitor trends, case studies and best practices from the industry.
In respect of airport equipment, San A Jong shares that they are “working on obtaining ACC3 status whereby carriers can fly cargo from non-EU airports into the European Union”. This involves a significant investment in X-ray equipment. Rapiscan, Nuctech and Smiths Detection are currently being reviewed as suppliers since they are widely used by customs authorities in the European Union. However, Nuctech’s scanner has not yet been approved in the USA and, since cargo traffic between the United States and Suriname is expected to rise, management needs to make a strategic decision for both regions. The airport also operates millimetre wave scanners and ETD machines to detect particles of explosive material and narcotics. San A Jong further mentions that, “all flights receive the same screening processes. This is crucial since there is only one security checkpoint and one waiting area.” This can result in lengthy queues, but security staff are trained to keep the process as orderly as possible and to combine manual screening with the use of scanners to meet growing passenger numbers. Passengers going to the United States are sometimes in the same terminal as passengers travelling to Curaçao and Trinidad, necessitating all to be subjected to the same degree of security inspection. Apart from the potential for errors, differences in security operations between flights could cause frustration and miscommunication among staff. San A Jong further stresses that, “well-trained staff can be more valuable than machines in detecting suspicious behaviour” and dealing with efficient passenger flows.
Nevertheless, maintaining adequate equipment is necessary for effective operations. Mendonça acknowledges and shares that some airline slots were changed solely for security purposes and oversight. The airport does not have continuous movements, so to maintain quality control and avert potential weaknesses, security programmes and competency tests are undertaken regularly by computer-based testing of X-ray operators and the incorporation of threat image projection (TIP) algorithms. This involves threats being projected during live operations to measure the staff’s detection capability and reaction time. Training is also given on general airport security, which involves behavioural analysis, awareness of unattended baggage handling and recognising malpractices. San A Jong mentions that the airport does not have a 100% inspection scheme in place when it comes to vehicle screening (basic searches are carried out), but since the Surinamese culture is one that observes and gives feedback, it is not yet needed. This culture also helps identify potential insider threats. In the past, employees that assisted drug smuggling were quickly detected and dismissed on the spot, sending out a message to all employees that strict regulations apply to everyone.
“…illegal smuggling of exotic animals, snakes and frogs still occurs regularly but, luckily, this is often detected at a very early stage…”
Cargo screening is another crucial component in the airport’s screening process since cargo loads are often large and difficult to physically check. Consequently, security staff are qualified to analyse paper trails. Fish, usually shipped in blocks of ice, is an example of cargo posing challenges to the screening process. The illegal smuggling of exotic animals, snakes and frogs still occurs regularly but, luckily, this is often detected at a very early stage. There are strict policies for transporting animals since illegal activities such as animal poaching and trafficking is a recognised local issue, and uncontrolled transportation of animals can result in the transmission of viruses and other diseases. San A Jong mentions that screening for drug possession had to be included in the regular security screening process since it still happens on a large scale, and can also be related to other forms of crime and terrorism.
“…a firearm-dealing gang travelling on a SkyTeam airline from Ethiopia to Curaçao and Suriname. These members were intercepted because of the close co-operation of the joint intelligence agencies and Interpol…”
Mendonça accepts the current processes because he recognises that airports are used as scouting hubs for criminals to carry out malpractices. Communication with other countries, airports and the local police enforcement is key. A recent success story for the airport involved a firearm-dealing gang travelling on a SkyTeam airline from Ethiopia to Curaçao and Suriname. These members were intercepted because of the close co-operation of the joint intelligence agencies and Interpol. Security staff are witnessing an encouraging reduction in the amount of firearm trafficking; the record high was in 2018 on flights from Guyana to Suriname.
“…pepper spray is often discovered in the handbags of women travelling from French Guyana…”
San A Jong explains that security screening evolves with time. To illustrate this, pepper spray is often discovered in the handbags of women travelling from French Guyana, where it is legal to carry as a self-defence product. However, these women used to be arrested for illegal possession in Suriname where pepper spray is prohibited. The airport has now changed the rule and now only confiscates pepper spray without making any arrests.
The major challenges of recent growth reside in the need for equipment and the expansion of the airport terminal with enough seating capacity. Security personnel will be made available by the government, and their training and management will be carried out by airport management. Mendonça reminds us that there are more stakeholders involved in passenger growth than just the airport – hotels, airlines, ground handlers, drug enforcement agencies, public health agencies, police forces and the private sector to name but a few. All of these organisations need to be able to facilitate the increasing number of passengers in a safe, sustainable and welcoming way. Since the airport is the first and last point of contact with the country, Mendonça is investing in customer-friendly programmes and policies for all airport staff to focus on a positive customer journey for the passenger. The opening of an additional lounge with courtesy services is one example; the lounge helps passengers to avoid the normal queues and facilitates private immigration, baggage handling and a customs service.
In response to the often-asked ‘what keeps you awake at night?’ question, San A Jong shares that the worst possible scenario for him would be to receive a call informing him of an emergency, such as a bomb threat or hijack, whilst at home. Like most of the airport’s staff, he lives in Paramaribo, an hour away from the airport, which is not ideal in an emergency.
Also keeping Mendonça awake is the capability and resilience of the airport should an emergency occur. Therefore, “the airport continuously reviews its contingency plans with the staff, police and the fire brigade”.
To conclude our interview, I ask the two managers if there is anything they are looking forward to when the 1,000,000th passenger per annum point is reached. For San A Jong, this will be “the increased quantity of peaks in the daily operations, which will lead to even smoother operations since activities will be spread throughout the day”. With a higher number of passengers, “staff will gain more experience, more adventure and have less of an opportunity for ‘oxidation’ in security practices”. For Mendonça, the challenge would be to run Johan Adolf Pengel International Airport as one of the key players in the region in terms of security standards, whilst maintaining a pleasant customer journey and working on projects for other milestones.
Shalini Levens started her aviation career with Perseuss, the shared web-based platform for travel merchants to collaborate against passenger and credit card fraud. She then moved to the automotive sector as a relationship manager for the Benelux region of TomTom Telematics. Shalini is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Air Transport Management at Cranfield University. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org