Airport Ground Security: a way ahead

by Mike Vivian OBE

Recent events have yet again focussed our attention on the security at airports worldwide. It is axiomatic that a balance has to be struck between keeping the world’s air travellers moving and appropriate and substantive airport security. The smaller countries of the world (geographical or by population numbers) may well be able to deploy more extensive and prolonged security measures than those countries tasked with moving huge numbers of the population, assuming an equivalent level of security risk. Wherever that risk is assessed as higher however, then it follows that the balance referred to above must tilt in favour of enhanced security at the expense, for example, of increased security staff or passenger check-in times.

We already have in place a baseline security platform as set out by the International Civil Aviation Organisation of the United Nations and signed by 190 states. In Europe and the US, for example, this has not been perceived as adequate or sufficient in the present uncertain times and extra layers of security have been implemented. Questions have also been asked about the reliability of an individual state’s assessment of security risk within its own sovereign territory, and parallels can be drawn from the MH17 destruction over Ukraine, where the airspace had not been declared unsafe at the flight level at which the aircraft was flying, and was one of many aircraft that day flying that particular route.

Reduced to essentials, airport ground security (just like in-flight security) entails dealing with procedures, personnel and appropriate equipment. Of course procedures can be developed and extended, personnel can be recruited and trained, and equipment can be deployed (given adequate funding), but ‘weaknesses’ in personnel remains perhaps the Achilles’ heel. It is often quoted that security is only as good as the weakest link and that weakest link may well be the airport staff member, who whilst passing all appropriate checks and screening, is secretively becoming radicalised.

Any immediate or longer-term measures to address the issues raised by recent events must of course include all those who have access to aircraft ‘airside’, that is those personnel who service the aircraft on turnaround on the tarmac – including caterers, refuelers, baggage loaders (as opposed to baggage handlers who, whilst not necessarily airside, would have to be included), cleaners, maintenance and operational staff, police and customs. It is important to note that, whilst some of these staff may be airline personnel, many of the functions are invariably outsourced, especially when away from ‘home base’ and this break in the direct employment chain and supervision may well compound the problem of continued verification of suitability. The roll out of safety management systems beyond airline operators could provide a platform for dealing with these additional issues of outsourcing.

So what can be done in the short and longer-term?