The world has changed in just five short months. Never have I heard the term ‘unchartered territory’ uttered as frequently in one week as I have in all my years collectively. Perhaps it is not unjust since we are in fact dealing with the most impactful global health pandemic since the commencement of civil aviation.
“…defeated by a virus just 0.1 microns wide that had originated some 7,000 miles away…”
Most aviation security professionals acknowledged, even during the early stages of this global health crisis, that it was critical we remain mission focused. We appreciated that those with sinister intent were still out there and that they would continue to target the aviation industry regardless of anything else the world was experiencing. So, we continued our mission and engaged every available resource to protect passengers, crew, and aircraft against those threats that we knew were looming on the horizon as they always had.
Except the passengers became fewer and then we started seeing fewer and fewer aircraft taking to the skies. In a matter of weeks, as borders were closed and flights were halted, there was very little left to protect. Apart from some emergency repatriation flights and medical cargo flights, the skies became very quiet and, by extension, so did the airports. Eerily, it reminded me of the days after 9/11.
For someone that has spent the better part of 30 years in aviation security, there was almost a feeling of helplessness. After everything we had done to protect the industry, I felt that we had been defeated by a virus just 0.1 microns wide that had originated some 7,000 miles away. Having started my career in aviation just eight days before the loss of Pan Am 103, I took solace from the fact that the industry is resilient and would always rebound from disruptive events, as it had in the past.
As talks turned to ‘re-starting’ the industry, there was (and still is) a great deal of uncertainty. While by no means a health expert, it became evident that much like our approach to security, it would take a ‘layered approach’ and that a great deal needed to be done to restore passenger confidence. Airlines and airports continue to rally with novel approaches and are supported by various industry bodies that sought to put solutions on the table before regulators could impose inevitable draconian requirements.
Certain air transport regulators remained largely silent as this was viewed as a health crisis – not their forte, nor within the realms of their authority to make decisions about. As and when health authorities became involved, it became clear that they had little to no understanding of aviation, and the industry was left to fend for itself on multiple fronts yet again.
At the time of writing (in late July), airline seat capacity across the globe is hovering at just 40% of what it was at the same time in 2019. Forecasted growth by various industry bodies does not paint a pretty picture and perhaps the most concerning indicator of the future of the industry has been the cancellation of future aircraft orders. As is often cited, “past results are not indicative of future performance” so the recovery outlook remains opaque and few can predict the true scale and long-term impact of this crisis.
Much has been written about what the future of aviation security will look like. Between ongoing sanitation, the donning of personal protective equipment, contactless interactions, use of technology to verify identity and so forth, there is an endless list of measures being implemented, albeit haphazardly. What remains unknown and arguably most difficult to quantify will be the loss of institutional knowledge. Institution, in this case, referring to the global network of aviation security practitioners.
From the early days, before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, I stayed in regular contact with colleagues around the world. Initially there was a lot of banter and exchanging of humorous memes on WhatsApp related to toilet paper hoarding, kids driving us mad in quarantine and a general ambivalent exchange of thoughts regarding the emergence of this new virus. We had been through SARS and Ebola so why would this be any different? As more information came to light, those messages took on more of a “be careful”, “stay safe” and “good luck” tone.
As the days and weeks progressed, more and more of my colleagues were being directly impacted by the significant reduction in flight activity. Aviation security professionals across six continents were having their work hours reduced or even being furloughed or laid off entirely. This affected individuals at varying positions within airlines, at airports and those employed by security service providers. We all held on to the notion that this would be temporary and that everyone would be back in a matter of weeks or at least as soon as the flights started again.
Now, almost five months into the pandemic, it has become abundantly clear that many of those colleagues will not return to their roles and that they have been made redundant on a permanent basis. It would be unfair to hold their employers responsible as companies must make incredibly difficult decisions at a time when their entire existence is in question. Simply put, in order to survive, most companies in the aviation industry, whether they received government bailouts or not, had to take action to reduce overhead costs in their efforts to survive the storm.
There are some amongst our cadre who do not wish to return to their previous roles due to the now blatantly exposed fragility of the industry – they must be able to provide for their families in the future. Some do not feel comfortable working in an airport environment where they are exposed to large numbers of people from various geographical flight origins and risk becoming ill from an infectious disease. In both cases, the rationale can be fully comprehended.
What does this mean for the future of aviation security? I fear that we have lost and will continue to lose the experience, skill and passion of true experts that have helped shape the system as we know it today. The system in place was created and built upon by a collective group of individuals, located in each hemisphere and every time zone, who dedicated many years of their lives to protecting the industry. Many of our colleagues who have first-hand experience in creating, developing, and implementing security countermeasures to mitigate multiple threats will no longer form part of our defensive arsenal.
Whether it be high-level security directors, mid-level managers, frontline screeners, or security officers, we are losing an encyclopaedia of valuable knowledge. More importantly, we are losing the skills and experience that serve as the cornerstone for the protection of a global network. While some might disagree, it is my sincere belief that experience in our complex aviation ecosystem simply cannot be taught in a classroom. There are certain elements of what we do that rely on field experience, instinct and understanding the historical context of how the threat landscape evolves ever so quickly and the need to be agile in our response. To do this, one must have a comprehensive and holistic understanding of how the system truly works down to each cog in the wheel.
Of course, we see colleagues leave their profession over a period, but seldom (hopefully) will we experience such a broad loss of expertise and dynamism that will likely result in a significant setback to the system as a whole. The true impact may not be fully known until such time as a new security threat emerges and there exists a lack of institutional knowledge to counter it effectively.
“…whether it be high-level security directors, mid-level managers, frontline screeners, or security officers, we are losing an encyclopaedia of valuable knowledge…”
We bid farewell to those colleagues who have moved on; know that you will be missed by those who came to rely on you and sought your guidance during difficult days. You should be proud of your contributions that have made the world a safer place. Thank you and the best of luck to you in your future endeavours!
Victor Anderes is Executive Vice President of Global Elite Group