Airport Security Design: new challenges in the COVID era by Jonathan Joohyung Lee

Airport Security Design: new challenges in the COVID era by Jonathan Joohyung Lee

Aviation security measures have been developing since the late 1960s. At that time, many aircraft hijackings were occurring in the US, as well as in other countries; most international security legislation that aimed to prevent this kind of security incident was implemented after 1974 when ICAO’s Annex 17 (to the Chicago Convention) was first issued. In those days, security measures only focused on hijackings and the measures were somewhat successful in reducing the number of such seizures. Throughout the 1980s our focus shifted to preventing a different threat: aircraft bombings. The Air India bombing and the subsequent downing of Pan Am 103 in December 1988 led to dramatic changes in aviation security. One of these requirements was the consideration of security design elements. With the eighth amendment to Annex 17 in 1992, ICAO established a new standard on airport security design measures. The current version (17th amendment) states:

“3.2.6 Each Contracting State shall ensure that the architectural and infrastructure-related requirements necessary for the optimum implementation of civil aviation security measures are integrated into the design and construction of new facilities and alterations to existing facilities at airports.”

“…integration of security requirements at the point of conceptualisation can save considerable effort and resources in construction and maintenance…”

This internationally mandated requirement for airport security design was initially introduced by ICAO to enhance aviation security in order to prevent any possible acts of unlawful interference, such as that of Pan Am 103. Most aviation security experts have realised the importance of the integration of security design in the construction and renovation of airport facilities, including passenger terminals. The initial integration of security requirements at the point of conceptualisation can save considerable effort and resources in construction and maintenance.

Following the events of 11 September 2001, security design became more important than ever before and many countries implemented more stringent security measures at civil aviation facilities in order to address the weaknesses highlighted by the 9/11 attacks. In 2006, following a bomb plot in the UK, further dramatic changes were made to airport screening procedures; namely the introduction of restrictions on liquids, aerosols and gels of more than 100ml per container.

Until last year, most major airports had spent considerable effort focusing purely on fighting acts of unlawful interference against civil aviation. In order to prevent these kinds of unlawful acts, we conducted security risk assessments before applying security features based on international threat, national security elements and an analysis of the local security environment. However, in 2020, we now have to consider one more vital new element: fighting disease in the airport security process. Some security experts have suggested that this is not a security issue and that we do not therefore need to implement further measures. I do not agree.

I appreciate that being able to effectively and efficiently prevent aviation terrorism is aviation security’s top priority. I also recognise that, so far, all civil aviation security has been designed with this goal in mind. However, we, as AVSEC professionals, also have to think about the health of security personnel in the airport design process. Failure to do so could severely impact upon the performance of airport security screeners, and therefore on the security of our facilities, flights, staff and passengers. ICAO highlights the importance of human factors in civil aviation security. ICAO’s Annex 17 states that:

“Each Contracting State should ensure that the development of new security equipment takes into consideration Human Factors principles.”

This recommendation could be interpreted to mean that human factors should be considered when implementing a security process. I suggest that these factors should be reflected in the design process prior to implementation.

“…Incheon is testing UVC technology to automatically clean baggage trays in its new smart security lanes…”

Currently, we are facing an unprecedented new challenge, one which is not directly related to security but to the social environment in which our security processes operate. In order to overcome this epidemic, many governments and international security related organisations including ICAO, Airport Council International (ACI) and International Air Transport Association (IATA) have been developing new security requirements and guidelines to prevent the transmission of infection during the screening process.

Jonathan Joohyung Lee

ICAO has released ICAO Guidelines for Aviation Security Contingency Measures During the COVID-19 Pandemic. This document contains significant recommendations, which may require changes to security facilities.

Similarly, ACI has also developed guidelines to counter COVID-19. It has also established an international accreditation regime – the ACI Airport Health Accreditation Programme – through which ACI certifies each airport that demonstrates commitment to protecting civil aviation from the disease. The programme is open to all ACI member airports of all sizes in all regions and involves checks of major passenger processing elements including: terminal access, check-in areas, security screening, boarding gates, lounges, retail, food and beverages, gate equipment such as boarding bridges, escalators and elevators, border control areas and facilities in collaboration with authorities, baggage claim area and arrivals exits. The programme recognises that passenger security is one of the most important areas to be addressed in terms of preventing infection as it involves more contact with passengers than any other procedure. This year, Incheon International Airport was assessed and endorsed by ACI via its Airport Health Accreditation Programme.

IATA has also responded to the pandemic via its aviation security intelligence portal, which includes real-time information related to bio safety, operations status and other valuable information designed to help each member airline during the COVID-19 crisis.

Also, many governments, including the Korean government, and governmental organisations, such as the US’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA), provide specific procedures to ensure safe working environments for airport and airline security staff members. TSA have implemented very thorough measures to protect personnel checking the authentication of travel documents before screening checkpoints, as well as security officers as they screen passengers and carry-on baggage, conduct physical search and ETD screening.

South Korea is also developing and implementing certain measures and design changes to meet the international requirements. For example, Incheon is testing UVC technology to automatically clean baggage trays in its new smart security lanes.

All these elements are related to changing or renovating the existing security facilities, especially passenger screening facilities, staff screening points and perimeter access control points where personal contact occurs. All of these areas need new security design concepts, both in terms of initial airport construction and renovation.

Worldwide air traffic volume may not recover until 2023 or 2024. During this period, it is vital that every airport and airline follows industry guidelines and implements measures both to overcome current difficulties and to prepare for how the situation may evolve. It is also vital that we set up an international AVSEC design assistance programme to assist airports of developing countries – or indeed any airport needing assistance – in implementing COVID-19 measures at security checkpoints.

“A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.”
Albert Einstein

This situation reminds me of a quote by Albert Einstein: “A clever person solves a problem. A wise person avoids it.” Now is the time to think about avoiding future situations, rather than only solving present issues on a case-by-case basis.

Jonathan Joohyung Lee is deputy security director, Incheon International Airport, Republic of Korea. He has been working in the aviation security field for more than 25 years, is a member of ACI RASC, and is an ICAO USAP-CMA auditor and instructor. He has a PhD in Aviation Security. Contact: