Recent attacks in Europe, the Middle East and Africa have sadly reminded us of the continued attractiveness of civil aviation as a high-value target for terrorists. These attacks have resulted in severe consequences for civil aviation and the national economies of those States impacted by the events.
The high visibility of our industry combined with our vulnerabilities to terrorism and the significant impact generated by minimal investments on the part of attackers, translate into a significant risk that should be monitored not only by our governments, but also by airport boards and executive committees, as part of due diligence exercises.
In recent years, through innovative technologies and the re-engineering of the passenger supply chain, we have attempted to find a new balance between security imperatives and passenger facilitation, to grow revenue streams and to improve the passenger’s journey through our airports. But have we gone too far?
How confident are we that our current security model can effectively detect explosives and weapons at checkpoints? It is important to remind ourselves that gains in expediency and facilitation are rendered worthless when we cannot effectively find what we are expected to detect and prevent.
It may be time to rethink the airport security model, to automate certain processes through advanced technologies, to reassess the ‘one size fits all’ regulatory regime in favour of a risk-based approach, and to re-examine the security performance at our screening checkpoints.
We are investing a lot of money in securing civil aviation. In the United States (USA) alone, this figure reaches US$8 billion and it is about to exceed US$6 billion in the European Union (EU). Are we getting our money’s worth? The results of ‘red teaming’ exercises in the USA, although anecdotal, would seem to point to some deficiencies, which must be addressed in order to secure the value of our investments.
Trying to find explosives and weapons at a security checkpoint is by no means easy. In fact, we challenge the reader to spend a day in a busy airport checkpoint to try to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. Every day, screeners anxiously examine thousands of cluttered bags in a noisy environment, all the while striving to comply with regulatory requirements and service level standards.
The actual probability of a screener being confronted with a real or pseudo-threat (surreptitious testing) could be as low as or even lower than 0.001%. It has been demonstrated, through research, that a low prevalence of threat items has a significant impact on the screening officers’ performance (this applies as well to medical X-ray technicians) and their capacity to detect a real threat when it presents itself during the screening process.