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Route Selection: security considerations

So you want to fly somewhere new? Aside from justifying the operation from a commercial perspective, one has to ask oneself the question whether it is safe to do so. No longer is it just a question of whether the destination airport offers security in line with international standards. Victor Anderes sets out the range of issues, resources and facilities which must be assessed and consulted prior to commencing operations, from over-flight of conflict zones to diversion stations, from analysing public source information to speaking with those on the ground and from crew layover options to housing for expatriate employees.

The goal of most airlines is to grow and become profitable. Typically, growth within the airline industry can be achieved by either adding capacity to existing routes already being flown or by starting routes to new destinations. For the most part, starting flights to a new destination is exciting, intriguing and filled with a sense of adventure. Needless to say, it also involves significant investment, preparation and a great deal of hard work.

The decision to start operating a new route is usually done on the basis of forecasting a profitable endeavour, but prestige and politics will at times also factor into the decision. From a strategic perspective, the decision to start a new route may be made purely on a commercial assessment with little or no consideration of operational safety and security challenges. Over the years, we have seen airlines announce new destinations only to retract those decisions once a safety and security assessment was conducted.

The degree of involvement by security experts is often determined by the ‘perceived’ risk associated with starting a new route. In some cases, security will be involved in the decision-making process, but in other cases, the decision will have been made and security will be an afterthought. Security considerations should always be part of the decision criteria on whether to start a new route from the outset – this should be done in the form of a risk assessment.

Christopher Columbus once said, “By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.” In today’s world, one clearly has access to more information when it comes to planning new routes. What is important is that one takes a holistic approach to security considerations. For the purpose of this article, let us assume that our new proposed destination is the fictitious country of Neverland.

Before even assessing conditions in Neverland, one must start by reviewing the route to Neverland, specifically, the route one flies to get there and, more importantly, what one flies over to reach that destination. In the wake of the tragic loss of MH17, there has been a renewed focus on over-flight of conflict zones. As sophisticated military weaponry falls into the ‘wrong hands’, over-flight assessments have become more critical. While ICAO recently launched its new Conflict Zone Risk Tool, it will take time to ensure that the system can be used with a high degree of confidence. Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs) issued by different governments are often conflicting and contradictory based on their own assessments. It must therefore remain the ultimate responsibility of each airline to conduct its own over-flight assessments.

Assuming that one has cleared the flight routing to include approach and departure paths to and from Neverland, it is important to consider diversion stations; diversions are occasionally necessary for mechanical, medical or other related emergencies, and potential diversion airports must be assessed to ascertain whether they are acceptable from a security perspective. However, diversion airports are not always suitable to address the root cause of the diversion. For example, an airport may be acceptable from a security perspective, but may not have the medical capabilities and facilities to address a medical emergency.

Before even visiting Neverland and assessing airport security measures, one must first make a high-level, risk-based assessment of the region, country and city. In doing so, one must assess the type of, and veracity of various threats that may impact the operation. Each new destination will be unique in terms of the threats. Conflict or civil unrest (geopolitical considerations) at that destination may need to be addressed differently to terrorism or human smuggling. The threat of kidnapping or extortion may need to be addressed differently to drug smuggling or theft of assets. In short, a new destination may present new threats and challenges that one may not have experienced on existing routes.

So, in assessing the potential threats, one needs information…but where to start? In today’s world, unlike that of Christopher Columbus, one can access open source information with the click of a button. Tourism sites, travel blogs and media reporting (local and international) will paint a fairly reliable picture of what security risks may exist. A number of governments also provide, at no cost, security assessments of countries and cities across the globe while also making travel recommendations. The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the US’ State Department, Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to name a few, offer a wealth of information. In addition to these free sources of information, there are numerous private companies that, for a fee, will provide corporations with ‘intelligence’ for locations that they intend to do business in.

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