Persisting Security Risks and Emerging Threats to Civil Aviation: illuminating considerations for the forthcoming decade

Persisting Security Risks and Emerging Threats to Civil Aviation: illuminating considerations for the forthcoming decade

Aviation security risks and threats evolve rapidly and manifest themselves in different forms. Recently, there has been a significant shift in the types of risks impacting civil aviation across the globe. While some of these risks are regional, the aviation community remains susceptible to intentional and unintentional acts with varying degrees of impact. As the decade draws to a close, Hany Bakr explores five of the pertinent and evolving risks facing aviation in the early 2020’s.

The multitude of threat vectors, and the various risks each pose, to operators are often challenging to confront and almost always result in operational problems and reputational harm. The most notable of those risks are (1) flights operating over, around, or adjacent to airspace considered problematic by some States – conflict zones; (2) civil unrest impacting aircrew, company business travellers during their layovers away from their home base, local employees based at the company’s international offices, and flight and airport operations; (3) terrorism – non-State actors and lone-wolf incidents compromising law and order in cities and other jurisdictions; (4) ‘insider threats’, also known as ‘known insiders’, presenting potential internal risks to air carriers; and (5) human trafficking, inadequately documented travellers, and narcotics; endangered species and contraband smuggling are other causes for concern due to their varying degrees of risk.

1Overflying conflict zones

Parts of the Middle East, Asia, North Africa, the Horn of Africa, Latin America, Southern Europe, and East Asia are under either flight operations restriction or prohibition by numerous States. Parts of these regions are considered conflict zones by some States in which flight operations are either restricted to certain altitudes, airways, or completely prohibited.

Beyond these regions, there are several other areas in East Asia, the Indian Sub-Continent, and Middle East where geopolitical tensions have raised the overflight risks due to the escalation of hostilities. This can be extremely limiting and commercially challenging to air carriers and their security divisions. Moreover, this adds significant pressure on airlines’ security divisions and the responsible States who assess overflight risks, often operating with limited, or no actionable, intelligence to help inform the risk assessment.

“…concerns persist over inadequate government intelligence sharing and a reluctance by States involved in conflict to divulge threat information or sacrifice overflight charges by closing their airspace…”

ICAO Annex 17 requires States to share threat information with one another. This intelligence is designed to help States protect their national interest by advising their air carriers, through their National Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA), about any specific risks or threats potentially impacting civil aviation. Air carriers will then use this intelligence when conducting their risk assessments, but different States often propose different countermeasures and mitigation recommendations for the same areas being assessed, advising air carriers, for example, to maintain different flight levels over the same airspace.

The Dutch Safety Board (DSB) recently highlighted, in a brief regarding the downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine, that States do not sufficiently share threat information as per the DSB’s recommendation. Concerns persist over inadequate government intelligence sharing and a reluctance by States involved in conflict to divulge threat information or sacrifice overflight charges by closing their airspace. Moreover, some States involved in conflict feel that by disclosing threat information in relation to their airspace, it could potentially have adverse reputational, commercial and economic impact as it would be acknowledgment that they are unable to safeguard operators within their territorial airspace.

This represents a great challenge to the aviation community and further asserts the need for partnering with reliable security information and risk management service providers to support operators and other industry stakeholders with quality and timely information relating to conflict zone overflight. Air carriers are encouraged to engage in regular dialogue with their NCAA to ensure timely and proactive threat information on overflight risks is available.

Based on the current political dynamics, in the mid- to long-term, it is unlikely that a significant shift in tensions noted above will occur. This will inherently continue to place added pressure and ultimate responsibility on airline’s security division while assessing overflight risks.

2Civil unrest impacting flight and cabin crew and flight/airport operations

Over the past six to twelve months numerous cities across the world have witnessed outbursts of civil unrest being conducted through a variety of means including protests, demonstrations, and strikes. Some of the unrest has resulted in fatal confrontations between protester(s) and local security forces.

Civil unrest has direct and indirect implications for air carriers, with airlines, international sales offices and airport operations often impacted by civil unrest. They are forced to reduce or cease operations, resulting in adverse travel safety situations and negatively impacting commercial and flight operations. This highlights the need for air carriers to ensure that robust travel risk management programmes and contingency planning are in place to manage this type of disruption.

As different nations, regions and cities continue to experience civil disturbances, political dysfunction and socio-economic challenges (sometimes resulting in power vacuums), volatile and, potentially, violent situations become highly likely in the near- to mid-term.

3Terrorism – non-state actors, and lone-wolf incidents compromising law and order

Whilst several parts of the world have witnessed a notable improvement in the security situation on the ground, this has mainly been due to improved central government control over non-State actors who previously seized and occupied large territorial areas. Notwithstanding, various groups, some of which are reportedly supported by proxy actors, as well as individuals inspired by various terrorist ideologies, continue to operate and pose significant risk to air carriers’ security, impacting airline employees, flight operations, and commercial goals.

Considering the continued existence of the actors noted above, as well as their intent and capabilities, further attempts to exploit States’ vulnerabilities due to their modest or immature security infrastructure is assessed as highly likely in the near- to mid-term.

4Insider threat presenting potential internal risks to air carriers

The intent, capability, and opportunity for a company employee or contractor with access to sensitive facilities, information, or systems to cause harm to the organisation is a risk that air carriers are urged to manage robustly and effectively.

Recent incidents of deliberate harm caused by employees, which directly impacted airlines and airports, include that of an American Airlines mechanic who was reportedly charged with sabotaging a plane’s navigation aids in July 2019 over contractual dispute. Another example includes a Horizon Air ground services agent, with no flying experience or qualifications, taking unauthorised control of a plane from Seattle–Tacoma International Airport and flying it into the ground in August 2018. These cases raised serious concerns over the mental health screening of aviation employees performing critical safety and security related functions.

These examples illustrate the importance of developing and maintaining an effective insider threat policy, supported by various internal stakeholders and, where necessary, external partners and law enforcement authorities. As air carriers continue to enhance collaboration with one another through alliances and affiliations, insider threat discussions become common ground in terms of benchmarking and capacity building. Thus, management, and the sharing, of insider threat working practice is expected to evolve and yield positive outcomes.

5Human trafficking, inadequately documented travellers, and smuggling of drugs, endangered species and other contraband

The regional security dynamics, dismantling of various non-State actors’ groups, and return of foreign fighters from combat zones to either their home country or a third country (some of which feature on different airlines or States’ watch-lists), means that some travellers revert to the use of false identity in order to evade airlines and States’ travel and immigration systems.

Regional economic and political situations are another motivating factor for certain travellers and facilitators to migrate, at times illegally, to their destination of choice. Smugglers of narcotics, endangered species and other contraband are becoming increasingly creative in their transportation methods and regularly adjust their tactics and techniques to evade security systems. The exploitation of individuals suffering from economic hardship is additionally becoming more commonplace.

“…serious concerns over the mental health screening of aviation employees performing critical safety and security related functions…”

If not managed appropriately, the above can leave air carriers facing serious reputational and operational risks as well as potential fines. It is crucial that airlines have a thorough understanding of geographical trouble-spots and are aware of malicious actors who operate on certain routes so that effective countermeasures can be put in place to mitigate these persistent threats. Where legally permitted, air carriers should explore options for sharing relevant threat information with one another and ensure that robust programmes exist for close and effective working relationships between themselves and with local authorities.

Notwithstanding points (2) and (3) above, and as global economic uncertainties continue to manifest themselves in many shapes and forms, it is likely that this risk will continue to present a great challenge to air carriers over the mid- and long-term.


To manage the above risks and threats effectively, the next decade in aviation security requires meaningful collaboration, quality and reliable information sharing, and most importantly a close working relationship amongst air carriers, aviation and non-aviation authorities and trusted industry partners. Only then will the industry begin to achieve the desired outcomes both mandated and governed by prudence and sound practice.

Hany Bakr

Hany Bakr is MedAire’s Aviation Security Director for Europe, the Middle East, & Africa. Hany has more than 20 years’ experience as an aviation and security professional and has held executive leadership positions in airlines’ airport operations, safety, quality and security divisions in the United Kingdom and the Gulf region. Prior to joining MedAire, Hany was Acting VP Group Security for Qatar Airways Group as well as Chairman of the oneworld Alliance Security Group, the Arab Air Carriers’ Organization (AACO) Security Intelligence Task Force, the Qatar Airways Security Risks, Threats & Security Action Groups and a member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) Security Group.

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