2017 was yet another tumultuous year for the industry in relation to the threats against, and regulatory requirements imposed on, commercial aviation. Aviation security professionals know that past attacks and plots have often served as the impetus for the security countermeasures we see in place today. But are we addressing these in the right way?
The threat associated with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) being concealed in personal electronic devices could be viewed as ‘just another plot’, much like the shoe bomb plot, underwear bomb plot, liquid bomb plot or printer bomb plot. But when we consider the plot in combination with other threats, such as the insider threat (as we saw in the bombing of Daallo Airlines flight 159), then we start to see a dynamic that is not easily solved through technology alone, and which continues to give us sleepless nights.
As these events continue to shape the way we mitigate risk, I cannot help but feel that the coming years will perhaps be the most challenging in terms of protecting the aviation system. We face a confluence of factors that make it ever more difficult to address the core issues that are needed to secure air travel. Global political instability, belligerent states, socio-economic divides and an increase in aircraft and passengers taking to the skies have all contributed to a volatile environment in which the aviation industry is more vulnerable to attack than ever before.
Watching victory parades on television and proclamations that Daesh has been defeated may give the average viewer some comfort and a false sense of security. Read between the headlines and you will know that while Daesh has been weakened, it has not been defeated, but rather ‘scattered’. Unlike tightly knit groups we have seen in the past, Daesh is loosely knit and operates across continents as a chain of interlocking networks. The fighters will likely morph or splinter into various radical groups that will be harder to monitor. Less time focused on the conventional battlefield allows more time to plot and plan unconventional attacks against civilian targets.
Al-Qaeda in the post-Soviet era of Afghanistan was similar in nature and we continue to witness their attacks across the globe. Daesh has greater reach, the ability to motivate and inspire “people already in place” and has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to deploy skilful and innovative means of conducting attacks. Having already conducted successful attacks against airports, the Sydney Bomb Plot shows that Daesh now has an appetite for a successful attack against a commercial aircraft – an appetite that appears to be insatiable.
…the Sydney Bomb Plot shows that Daesh now has an appetite for a successful attack against a commercial aircraft…
Donald Rumsfeld once said, “Well, of course you don’t know what you don’t know”. This rings true in that we simply don’t know in what shape or form the next attack against commercial aviation will come. We do however know that we are facing highly motivated, determined and creative adversaries that require us to rethink our approach to the multi-pronged threats we face.
So we turn to technology and expect that it will solve all our concerns. Yes, there is a place for technology, and it addresses a myriad of attack vectors in an efficient (albeit costly) way. As is almost always the case however, technology jumps to the forefront and we forget about the people – the most critical component of securing the system. Technology is ever advancing and will constantly be improved as millions are spent on research and development in stark contrast to the lack of investment that is made in people who form the backbone of the system.
During 2017 I attended at least five conferences related to aviation security. The topics covered were similar in nature, and there was always talk of human factors and the importance of the people on the front lines. Discussions were had and presentations were made on training, development, compensation and other elements of having a strong and reliable aviation security workforce. A lot of what I saw and heard, unfortunately and sadly, was just lip service.
Last year, I travelled to 16 countries and visited 29 airports around the world. The airports, whether in developing or developed countries, all have a strong reliance on the human capital that is engaged to implement the measures required to protect passengers and employees. Without exception, at every airport, security officers are under-valued and under-paid. Many face a choice of whether to continue this important work or find a job elsewhere with better compensation and less responsibility.
We see the ‘low cost phenomena’ continuing to erode the quality of security personnel at airports and, by default, weakening the system at a time when we should be strengthening it. The need for investment in people – the glue that holds it all together – has never been more critical than it is today.
On a recent trip to South Africa, I had the opportunity to meet with the head of a Wildlife Anti-Poaching Unit. He told me that, “until such time as those employed to protect the wildlife are as motivated and well compensated as the poachers who kill the rhinos for their horns, the battle to save these magnificent creatures will never be won.”
I believe that we face a similar dilemma in our industry…