LONDON — The suicide attacks at the Brussels Airport have led to intensified scrutiny of hiring, security, and the lack of standardized procedures at airports across Europe, amid questions about whether the bombings last week could have been prevented.
The head of the largest police union in Belgium warned on Thursday of a serious security problem at Brussels Airport, citing systematic security flaws, bureaucratic incompetence, and the employment of baggage handlers with criminal records.
His remarks came as airport police wrote an open letter, cited in several Belgian newspapers, expressing deep concern about the level of security at the airport, echoing worries about procedures, staffing, and the potential for infiltration by terrorists at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport after the deadly attacks in the city in November.
Since 2001, the European Union has adopted a uniform set of rules and procedures for protecting the areas of any airport that are behind security checkpoints. But the methods for safeguarding of areas accessible to the general public are established at a national level and therefore vary among member states.
Vincent Gilles, president of SLFP Police, the largest police union in Belgium, with 22,000 members, said in an interview that he was disturbed after hearing colleagues say that some baggage handlers had applauded the attacks in Paris that killed 130 people.
“This is what I have heard from fellow police,” he said in a telephone interview. “Obviously, one needs to be prudent and we are checking this out.”
Gilles said there was a notable and worrying number of employees working at Brussels Airport in baggage handling and on the tarmac who had criminal records, but he did not provide an estimate.
Many of the terrorists involved in the Brussels and Paris attacks have links to the poorer, immigrant parts in the Belgian capital, and Gilles appeared to draw a connection between those areas and the security of the airport. Gilles suggested that the recruitment policy employed by Brussels Airport Co., which manages the facility, appeared to favor people from those areas.
Anke Fransen, a Brussels Airport spokeswoman, said the company was aware of the various concerns raised by the police union but had no immediate comment.
The airport company said in a statement Thursday that it was “operationally ready” to reopen and that the Belgian Civil Aviation Authority had granted approval for a partial restart of passenger flights.
Authorities had not made a formal decision on when they could resume, however, and there will be no flights before Friday evening, the statement said.
In Brussels, Gilles said that while traffic at the airport had increased tenfold over the past 15 years, his repeated requests to augment security had been ignored because the federal police, who are responsible for the airport, saw it as unnecessary and failed to send the request up the chain of command to the Interior Ministry.
Gilles suggested that bureaucratic entropy and a lack of responsibility among the political class were undermining security at the Brussels Airport.
Belgium, a politically fragmented and linguistically divided country, has come under heavy criticism in recent days after a number of astonishing law enforcement and intelligence errors that led to the deadly attacks at the airport and the Maelbeek subway station in Brussels.
Gilles accused Brussels Airport Co. of placing an excessive focus on economic considerations, and he said a request made in December to install a security check outside the entrance to the airport terminal had been rebuffed.
He said he was told that such a checkpoint would be too expensive, and that company officials defended the decision by noting that no other airport in the EU’s open-border Schengen Area had such security measures.
In the open letter by the airport police, as reported Thursday by Het Belang van Limburg, a Flemish newspaper, the officers said they were not satisfied with security.
They complained that employees of all ranks had access throughout the airport and that there were insufficient checks on passengers before they entered the terminal to check in for flights.
Gilles told RTL, the Belgian broadcaster, that the letter was not a negotiating tactic but a cry for help, and that security workers had been complaining about conditions for more than a year.
In the interview with RTL, he said that fatigue among airport staff extended to those involved in counterterrorism. He said police were enraged about the targeting of Brussels.
“There is anger for not having prevented the attacks,” he said.