Screening officers working on the front lines at airports around the world have a tough job. They are required to operate a variety of different screening technologies and carry out complex processes in a demanding environment. While the likelihood of encountering a real threat is relatively low, the failure to detect one can have potentially catastrophic consequences. Ensuring quality when confronted with these realities is an ongoing challenge for many screening authorities. In this article, Michelle Peralta draws upon the Canadian experience to highlight the importance of operational oversight to achieve quality objectives in the context of security screening operations.

The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) is responsible for the provision and management of security screening services at 89 designated airports across Canada. More than 66 million passengers are screened annually by the 8000 screening officers working at our 100+ checkpoints and 300+ screening lines across Canada.

CATSA has four major areas of responsibility: pre-board screening (PBS), hold baggage screening (HBS), non-passenger screening (NPS), and the restricted area identity card (RAIC) for non-passengers. CATSA reports to the Minister of Transport, who establishes aviation security standards and regulations.

In order to fulfil its mandate, CATSA develops, maintains and enforces security screening policies and procedures that take into account a suite of regulatory requirements and industry standards. Ensuring compliance with these requirements is an important factor in CATSA’s ability to deliver on its mandated responsibilities and is an integral component of day-to-day security screening operations.

CATSA has implemented a third-party service delivery model, meaning the management and provision of security screening services has been subcontracted. Specifically, private screening contractors recruit, supervise and coach screening officers, whom they employ to deliver security screening services at designated airports.

CATSA has an obligation to ensure the quality of the services delivered by screening contractors. Operational oversight enables us to observe, record, report, and manage service delivery performance. In addition, it helps CATSA to build a culture of accountability, transparency and integrity in the evaluation and management of operational risks.

Quality means different things to different organisations. The crucial thing is that quality objectives are defined, and that those operating within the system understand what they are and why they are important. CATSA has its own definition of quality, built upon three outcomes – efficiency, effectiveness and customer service – and grounded in the three components of the aviation security screening system – technology, procedures and people.

The Path to Quality

The overall quality of the aviation security screening system is reliant on three primary inputs – screening technology, operating procedures and the people who operate the technology and implement the procedures. To achieve quality objectives, the three inputs must work together: screening technology must function properly, and people must operate the technology correctly while applying the right procedures consistently. If the system is functioning properly and all components are performing as expected, quality objectives will be achieved. If the system is not functioning correctly and one or more of the components is not performing as expected, quality objectives will not be achieved. Let us break this down further:


Technology is central to CATSA’s frontline operations. It includes everything from the X-rays, hand-held metal detectors (HHMDs), explosive trace detection (ETD) and liquid explosive detection (LED) equipment, full-body scanners (FBS) and walk-through metal detectors (WTMDs) commonly found at checkpoints, to the latest behind-the-scenes, in-line hold-baggage screening systems. Technology enables us to carry out our mandate more effectively and efficiently. It provides screening officers with additional tools to help them perform their important role of detecting threats to aviation security. Although technology can break down, contingency procedures help mitigate any major operational impact that would hinder our ability to achieve quality objectives.


CATSA cannot achieve its mandate without high-quality human resources. Our goals and objectives are met through processes and systems in which different people fulfil different functions. The entire aviation security system is operated by human beings performing tasks and making decisions. Human factors, including judgment, decision-making, alertness, competency and threat-detection skills and abilities have a direct impact on the overall quality of our security screening operations.

The people component of the aviation security screening system is sometimes challenged by the nature of the operating environment. Screening officers have a significant amount of responsibility and have to make frequent and quick decisions in a busy, noisy and fast-paced screening checkpoint. On occasion, they may be subjected to poor treatment by passengers, they may become distracted by incidents at the checkpoint, or they may be faced with external pressures to screen faster or differently (impatient passengers or long queues for example), all of which may directly affect the quality of screening operations.


The third component is the procedures and programmes that bind technology and people together. Procedures and programmes are put in place to provide direction and to define processes to achieve security screening objectives. For example, standard operating procedures (SOPs) include the standards and processes by which screening officers screen people and baggage at PBS, NPS and HBS checkpoints.

Creating the correct synergy between the key elements of our security system – technology – people – procedures – will lead us on the path to quality. However, weaknesses in one may lead to vulnerabilities in another. For example, poorly trained people will not be able to operate technology properly. No matter how good the technology is, if the operator does not use it correctly, it will not be effective. Conversely, a highly skilled screening officer will not be as effective if the technology is not functioning properly. These interdependencies make it essential to apply a systems-based approach to monitoring compliance to ensure quality objectives are met.

When it comes to ensuring quality, the system component we have the least control over is the ‘people’ component. We can deploy the most sophisticated technology available accompanied by clear and concise operating procedures, but if the procedures are not followed, or if the technology is not used properly, our quality objectives will not be realised. For this reason, CATSA’s performance oversight activities focus on screening officer procedural compliance. Specifically, we assess how screening officers implement the highest-risk security screening procedures.

Strategies to Achieve Successful Compliance Results

The importance of a properly established and managed performance oversight programme to enhance procedural compliance cannot be overstated. The technical details of an oversight programme, including the number of resources required, the type and quantity of assessment criteria, the location and frequency of observations, and the methodology for collecting, analysing and reporting of results are all important considerations when developing new programmes or initiatives to achieve compliance objectives.

“…creating the correct synergy between the key elements of our security system – technology – people – procedures – will lead us on the path to quality…”

CATSA has invested significant resources in the development of a robust oversight programme to achieve its quality objectives. Two specific factors have been particularly successful in helping us achieve programme objectives: establishing an unpredictable but regular oversight presence by specially trained personnel and automated data collection and reporting.

CATSA Oversight Officers, as seen here in Halifax, use handheld devices with a custom application to collect compliance data. (Credit: CATSA)
CATSA Oversight Officers, as seen here in Halifax, use handheld devices with a custom application to collect compliance data. (Credit: CATSA)

The very presence of CATSA personnel at screening checkpoints on a daily basis and at various times throughout the day promotes compliance and reinforces the message that compliance is important. However, we also need to measure compliance levels. Having an automated data collection and reporting tool to record oversight observations makes the collection of statistically relevant sample sizes much more efficient and manageable. CATSA personnel use a hand-held device and an in-house designated data collection tool to gather this data, which is then integrated automatically into our business intelligence software for analysis and reporting.

In addition to creating the actual programme structure for oversight, it is important to implement parallel and complementary strategies that will lay the groundwork for a successful programme, focusing on the ‘people’ component. As part of its performance oversight model, CATSA works with its screening contractors to promote compliance. Promoting compliance increases awareness, motivates screening officers, encourages voluntary and proactive compliance, and strengthens stakeholder understanding of the objectives, processes, and expected quality outcomes. This is an important component of the oversight model because in order to comply with requirements, screening contractors and screening officers must first be aware of the requirement and then understand why it is important and what the consequences are of non-compliance. In addition, they must have a vested interest in compliance.

In CATSA’s experience, we have found the following strategies to be particularly successful in securing buy-in and active participation.

Defining ’Quality’

Each organisation’s definition of ‘quality’ can differ, and this is important because it will influence the design and development of oversight, compliance and quality assurance initiatives and programmes. By being open and transparent about objectives, the programme will be more readily accepted.

Quality must be rooted in the foundations of every organisation. Each employee must know and understand their organisation’s quality objectives. The infusion of this knowledge must begin during their initial training and continue throughout their career, as the aviation security screening system evolves.

For CATSA, quality outcomes are rooted in ‘effectiveness’ (the ability of screening officers to use screening technology and apply procedures to successfully identify and intercept threats to aviation security), ‘efficiency’ (resources are optimised to maintain passenger wait time service levels), and ‘customer service’ (screening officers deliver a professional, effective, and consistent level of security across the country). These objectives and principles are thoroughly engrained in the initial screening officer training programme, operating procedures and organisational culture, and regularly reinforced in corporate communications, shift briefings and recurrent training. CATSA also regularly and openly shares performance results with screening contractors so that they know where they are on the path to quality, and can adjust their route as required to achieve the desired quality outcomes.

Explaining the ‘Why’ of Quality

It is critical for stakeholders in the security screening system to understand the mission of the organisation and the role they play in helping to achieve it. Without an understanding of the importance of their particular role, achieving compliance and quality objectives will be more challenging. For screening officers, this entails making a direct link between evolving threats to aviation security and security screening procedures. Screening officers must also see the connection between their role in preventing threats from making it on board an aircraft and CATSA’s mission to protect the travelling public.

CATSA explains the ‘why’ of quality from the very first day of training for new screening officers. They are shown a video of Susheel Gupta telling his story of losing his mother in the 1985 Air India bombing. This tragic incident remains Canada’s deadliest terrorist attack and demonstrates the human toll and long-lasting impact of failing to detect a threat to aviation security. CATSA has found this to be highly impactful in setting the stage for a screening officer’s career, and to explain the ‘why’ of quality.

On an ongoing basis, information on new and evolving threats is shared with screening officers in shift briefings and security information notices so that they fully understand why new technology is being deployed and why new procedures are being implemented. This active information-sharing keeps screening officers engaged and motivated to achieve quality objectives.

Promoting Compliance Positively

Employees do not show up for work every day with an ambition to fail or to make mistakes. They want to do a good job and are committed to doing a good job. Performance oversight programmes that are designed with this in mind will be more positively received. If screening officers feel like they are viewed in a negative light, it will be more difficult to achieve programme objectives. Management also has a role to play in promoting compliance positively by providing ongoing training and a motivating environment to foster procedural compliance and performance improvement.

CATSA promotes compliance by being open and transparent. Screening officers are briefed on the objectives and methodology of CATSA’s performance oversight programme during their initial training and are provided with an opportunity to review the content of compliance checklists. This is to ensure the programme is not shrouded in mystery and does not cause fear or apprehension.

CATSA also promotes compliance by providing monetary incentives to screening contractors through its Service Excellence Programme. Rewarding screening contractors for realising and exceeding quality objectives gives them specific targets and goals to work towards. A reward programme such as this not only promotes compliance positively, it reinforces the importance attributed to the defined quality objectives.

Why Compliance Matters

Security screening procedural compliance is essential to achieving quality in the realm of aviation security. In today’s threat environment, high-quality screening is not an added value; it is an essential requirement.

Aviation remains a target; terrorists continue to innovate and find new ways to attack civil aviation. They also continue to learn from both their successes and their failures. When something does not work, or almost works, they refine their designs and techniques and try again. Given the realities of this operating environment, high-quality security screening at airport checkpoints is essential. Screening authorities have a leadership role to play in fostering an environment conducive to compliance. Regular operational oversight founded on shared principles will help achieve compliance and contribute to the realisation of quality objectives.

Michelle Peralta

Michelle Peralta is the manager of performance programmes at the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority. She is responsible for the design and development of CATSA’s national oversight programme. She can be reached at:

Leave a Reply