It is often said you are only as strong as your weakest link, so keeping an aircraft secure requires deploying a dedicated, reliable, and consistent team. With the ongoing threats to civil aviation around the world, regulatory requirements continue to become more rigorous for aviation security professionals to manage on daily basis. Over the past four years in the United States, there has been a significant upturn in testing by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), specifically focussing on aircraft search; they have become very creative trying to think like the ‘bad guys’! But our industry must adapt, and with this change there are always multitudes of hurdles to overcome. Douglas O’Mara examines these daily challenges, and discusses the methodology, best practice, and solutions for conducting an effective aircraft search.

The fundamental takeaway of this article will be that ‘consistency is key’. All roads lead back to consistency; in any activity we do in life, consistency always plays a big role. In sports, people must practice being consistent to be the best. At work, employees must consistently produce results to be successful. Even as a parent, we must send consistent messages to our children to teach them the right from wrong. At this point, you are probably wondering how this ties into aviation security? Well, consistency has everything to do with it. Because inconsistency tends to be the root cause for most security failures.

For many security organisations that conduct exterior and interior aircraft security searches, when an incident report is received, it will often detail what failure occurred, a reason why it occurred, and what immediate corrective action was implemented as a result. Problem fixed. But the next day, the same failure occurs again, just with a different security agent. Or worse, the same individual fails again on another air carrier. How is this possible? They both attended and passed initial aviation security (AVSEC) training. They were provided on-the-job field training (OJT). Why is there a problem? Because we do not drill down deep enough and identify the root cause when failures occur. And that means long-term solutions will never be reached. Training is only a small piece of the security management system process and, unfortunately, there is only a relatively short amount of time dedicated to it. Plus, a new hire, or even a veteran employee, can only retain so much data.

This article will be separated into two parts. Initially it will review the daily challenges faced by those responsible for searching aircraft before exploring ways to achieve best practice using new ideas, technology, and processes; it will then look at solutions to prevent inconsistency.

Daily Challenges

Up until the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, aviation was booming. It seemed as if air carriers were introducing new aircraft types, configurations, and products every month. At New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Virgin Atlantic Airways was operating seven daily flights with a mixed fleet of Boeing 787s, 747s, Airbus A330s, and the newer Airbus A350. Although all similar in brands, each of these aircraft present different configurations with their own unique nooks and crannies. Now factor in all of the other airlines that a security company may be providing services to; any one of these exact same aircraft may well present a completely different configuration.

Envision a hypothetical employee induction flow chart. A security agent is hired by a company, approved for their airport credentials, and then placed immediately into AVSEC training. This individual is most likely provided a set curriculum of industry knowledge which will prepare them with the basic tools to get the job done. Armed with the theory and principles learned in the classroom, they are then brought out into the field for the practical component of training. Based on an organisation’s training policy, the total amount of training hours or days will vary, but most AVSEC professionals will agree that the actual amount of training allowance is just not enough to cover it all.

Aircraft search demonstration (Credit: Global Elite)
Aircraft search demonstration (Credit: Global Elite)

After training is completed, our new hire security agent is now assigned to the roster. In a perfect world, the individual would have consistent shifts where they become subject matter experts for specific aircraft types but, unfortunately, that is not how the aviation ecosystem operates. Weather delays, technical problems, and other variables happen on a daily basis. It is not unusual for the morning flight to arrive in the evening, and therefore for the night flight to depart the next day. This leaves the potential for ‘non-regular’ employees to service an aircraft. The bottom line is that security personnel understand the concept of aircraft search, but, without any aircraft-specific training or knowledge, there will always be security vulnerabilities and gaps.

Sadly, these days, certain airport jobs are just not viewed as desirable – and this is as true now as it was pre-COVID-19. Aviation is a tough industry to work in. The logistics of physically working at an airport often create a challenge for many, and those who do choose to take the opportunity typically bounce around from one company to another in an attempt to get paid the highest wages. In security, with all the added pressure generated by the regulatory requirements, this usually results in high turnover rates. When we apply these factors to aircraft search, it becomes a monumental task managing a revolving door of inconsistent security agents and ensuring that they are all experts on the variety of aircraft they may be assigned to check at any time. So, to answer the earlier question as to why a problem persists after training has been completed, it is largely due to an inconsistent staffing plan.

“…aircraft present different configurations with their own unique nooks and crannies…”

Another inconsistent and daily occurrence is the poor utilisation of equipment. Basic tools of the trade include flashlights, protective gloves, and hand-held mirrors. While there is no requirement for a security team to deploy any equipment for conducting an aircraft search, not doing so only makes the task more arduous to effectively achieve. When a failure occurs in this scenario, it becomes a difficult conversation explaining why recommended equipment was not utilised. Typically, this can easily be traced back to management and staff complacency. Yet these types of issues can be controlled with simple measures to avoid a lack of consistency – better management oversight, budget planning for equipment inventory, and/or utilising daily checklists to ensure the proper tools are deployed.

Credit: Green Light Ltd.
Credit: Green Light Ltd.

Finally, let’s examine aircraft turnaround time. Airlines do not make money when planes are on the ground; they make their money while in the air. This common rationale often leads to poor decisions and break-downs within the security chain.

Aircraft turnarounds are generally planned to be quick, in-and-out jobs, and on-time performance only happens when all parties work together. But, as the old expression goes, safety and security must not be compromised! The air carrier, and all its service providers, need to take a holistic approach to getting the job done. The philosophy cannot be ‘every man for himself’. There must be a consistent strategy in place, which is stated and guided by the airline. Even in the pre-COVID-19 days, carriers worked very hard to find that perfect balance between revenue, client satisfaction, and optimal performance. But when that plane arrives late, the clock does not stop ticking, and this is where the security struggle sets in. With on time performance being so critical, when lost time needs to be made up, the human factors of stress, time management and peer pressure all kick in, often negatively impacting the mindsets of those involved in security operations.

Ineffective training plans, multiple aircraft configurations, operational complacency, and time management crunches are just a few of the many complex layers needing to be managed within the security management system. Adopting an ICAO approach of developing principles and techniques for security standards is a good model for laying a solid foundation. Creating solutions for these issues will only be achieved by standardising processes.

“…it is much easier to manage and course-correct consistency than inconsistency…”

Image credits: Green Light Ltd.
Image credits: Green Light Ltd.

Solutions for Inconsistency

Fixing these everyday problems and challenges is not a simple task. AVSEC providers need to start with the fundamentals, and that begins with training. Take a close look at your company’s internal training programme. Does the content of your classroom training, whether it is aircraft search, access control or catering, make sense? Is the material structured in a pragmatic and sequential way? And is it retainable? It is very easy to fall into a ‘tick box’ mentality in order to cover everything in a short time. Simply identifying the common hiding areas for prohibited items and IED placement is insufficient; at the conclusion of training, students need to understand why they are performing this task, the process for accomplishing the job effectively, and are able to recognise suspect items. Knowing what belongs on an aircraft versus what does not is essential.

A good way to audit your training programme is by having an internal and trusted ‘non-operational’ company employee sit in the class. I recommend someone from human resources because the knowledge they will acquire during the course will be useful when recruiting or handling company business. After the training, ask students follow-up questions: Did the class make sense? Did they follow the material? Do they feel they are prepared to now do the job? If there is confusion afterwards, more than likely, your security staff are confused as well.

Based on discussions with AVSEC colleagues around the globe, it seems the preferred method of training is shifting from classroom learning to more of a workshop approach, avoiding ‘death by PowerPoint’ and incorporating more interactive group activities. Effective training delivers methodical and consistent information, backed up with practical exercises to reinforce the concepts. Learning aids should be a requirement for this type of instruction, and can be as simple as using a flashlight and desk chair for aircraft search demonstration, or utilising a search mirror to find hidden objects around the classroom. In the end, each student should be equipped with the skill set required to consistently search an aircraft to the same standard. It is much easier to manage and course-correct consistency than inconsistency. Also, this style makes the transition into field training more seamless.

Applying as much visual learning as possible tends to enhance the workshop environment and increase student engagement. Investing in an aircraft search video will instantly raise the calibre and quality of training; however, for a more cost-effective solution, simply use a mobile phone video, or action-style camera, to record some of your trustworthy star employees conducting a search. A series of short videos clips will become a key demo piece of the training workshop. But do seek permission from the airport, airline and employees involved prior to recording!

“…investing in an aircraft search video will instantly raise the calibre and quality of training…”

The mobile phone and camera can be utilised in multiple ways to improve the security process during an aircraft search. Let us revert back to the discussion of aircraft configurations. To tackle this challenge, a mandatory operational briefing (MOB) must be completed prior to searching the aircraft. This is a perfect opportunity for technology to be integrated. Develop an aircraft-specific data file, and keep it stored securely on a mobile device or a tablet. This file should include photos of important areas, critical components of regulatory requirements, and key talking points for supervisors and managers. Essentially, this file will serve as the script for the pre-search briefing. Every airline and aircraft type should have a unique MOB file providing a consistent set of instructions for the search.

Image credits: Green Light Ltd.
Image credits: Green Light Ltd.

“…aircraft search testing failures must be taken seriously, and our reaction should be similar to the way we respond to failures relating to threat image projection in X-ray screening…”

The market is also flooded with turnkey, application-based auditing and inspection platforms for organising and capturing data. Increase accountability by creating checklists and inspection forms so managers and supervisors can easily document in real time the quality of the operation. Aircraft search testing failures must be taken seriously, and our reaction should be similar to the way we respond to failures relating to threat image projection in X-ray screening. Conducting and logging daily aircraft search ‘spot check’ inspections allows the quality control department to take a proactive approach and gain clear analytical insight and metrics, while allowing the identification of trends and potential vulnerabilities before a failure occurs. And to reiterate the earlier comment regarding complacency, implementing an equipment checklist will help overcome the issue of forgotten search tools.

Video conferencing applications have also become ubiquitous over the past six months due to COVID-19. Security companies are now experimenting in utilising such platforms for aircraft search oversight. A live, password-protected conference link can be established and viewed by managers to ensure proper and consistent practices are being maintained. This technology application doubles as an effective training and quality management tool.

To be clear, no matter how flawless the training programme is, and regardless of how many technological solutions are put into practice, consistent results are not achieved without the day-to-day grind, or with a set-it-and-forget-it attitude. A consistent, organisational commitment must start at the top, promoting a strong security culture focused on maintaining standards.

Douglas O’Mara is based in New York, USA and works for the Global Elite Group. He heads up the training and quality assurance department, as well as overseeing company and AVSEC regulatory compliance. Doug is an ICAO AVSEC PM and Airport Certified Employee – Security (American Association of Airport Executives). He can be contacted at