Queues and delays at airport security never fail to frustrate passengers, and airport operators alike. An unpleasant experience will colour their whole view of the airport, yet outsourced contracts rarely recognise the customer service role of security personnel. Adam Brownson, explores how airports should select their screening providers to meet the demands of today’s travellers.

Airports that do not meet the expectations of passengers face a real risk of rapid reputational damage. In today’s interconnected world, if a passenger has an unpleasant experience at security screening, it can be on Twitter in minutes. Even when the airport outsources the responsibility for delivering security, accountability still rests with them.

This creates a real need for airports and service providers to recognise the fundamental role security personnel play in the overall passenger experience. They may well be the only airport staff the passenger meets, and the service they provide will be critical to the traveller’s view of the whole airport. As Josephine Teo, Singapore’s Home Affairs Minister, said recently, “We must modernise our security contracts by making them outcome-based, and break the assumption that more guards equal better security.”

So, when selecting a security screening provider, airports need to consider the contractor’s ability to provide a good customer experience and serve the needs of the airport. Equally, as pressure on capacity grows, those providers will need to work with the airport to take innovative approaches and seize the opportunities provided by modern technology.

It’s a complex challenge and will need new thinking around contracting to ensure airports capture such requirements and provide a way to monitor performance. In all this, the central question for those selecting a security screening provider must be: will this contractor protect and enhance the airport’s brand?

Look for More than Just Cost and Compliance

One major cargo handler has suggested there is now little difference in hourly costs of security screening services between providers, and the same is likely to be true for passenger screening. This means cost is becoming a less important factor in the choice of contractors. Equally, regulatory requirements are a given – all providers must meet and follow them so there is no flexibility for contractors to offer different approaches.

As a result, old contracting approaches, where the airport would specify the number of security personnel they want by hour of the day, no longer work. We are seeing increasing use of ‘per passenger’ payments, where the security provider has the flexibility to resource the screening process to whatever level will achieve the outcomes set out in a service level agreement. Adopting this kind of approach will, however, need those selecting providers to be much clearer about the outcomes they want and more flexible about how to achieve those outcomes.

Some airports are moving towards this, putting in place service level agreements focused on queuing time and customer service but giving each provider more flexibility to build a service that meets the need. As Oren Sapir, President & CEO of ICTS Europe, has said, “When airports adopt that approach, it allows for innovation and increased productivity, delivering better quality for the same price. Ultimately this provides a better service for the airport.”

Harness Your Data

One development that will enable such flexibility is more effective use of data. Our research with leaders across the transport sector suggests there is a growing recognition that the challenge ahead will be to manage the proliferation of data available and secure more value from its insights.

Airports and aviation businesses are increasingly using the vast amount of business operations data they collect to predict volumes and types of traffic in advance, and to model how to respond to disruption. Heathrow is just one example of an airport that is using a range of business analytics, applying machine learning to scheduling data to proactively plan the real time deployment of resources and personnel, from baggage handlers to immigration. These techniques mean if weather conditions enable overnight transatlantic flights to arrive ahead of schedule they can respond more effectively, all of which gives a better customer experience.

Security service providers have not generally had access to this kind of detailed data, but if they did it would offer them real opportunities to deploy staff in response to the situation on the ground and meet the requirements of their service level agreements more effectively.

Passenger data could enable much more efficient security screening by letting providers understand the volumes of passengers at each screening area and the types of traveller (frequent fliers, business, leisure, families and those with reduced mobility). They could then work out how much luggage they will have and how that will translate into the number of images they will need to screen per passenger.

This kind of integrated data would allow security management to build up a sophisticated picture of demand and then adjust their service dynamically to meet it. Those adjustments can make a real difference to the passenger experience and their satisfaction with the airport.

Get the Right Kit

As well as better use of data, there is also potential to improve screening equipment and use the most advanced technology in the best configuration. Screening equipment is expensive and traditionally owned by the airport or aviation business, needing a capital investment that may outlive the security contract.

In the developing world, where access to capital may be more constrained, there has been a greater willingness to let security service providers own the entire process, including the screening technology they use. There is now potential to use this kind of approach in developed economies when airports are expanding.

The advantage of this model is that security service providers who have operations at multiple locations can deploy equipment effectively. They can use their breadth of experience to work out the best configuration of equipment to suit different airport and passenger characteristics and use this to drive innovation. They also have the scale to secure better value from technology providers, and to invest in breakthrough technologies, like biometric screening and passenger tracking. Just as air traffic controllers are seeing the potential to use remote towers to improve efficiency, we could see security service providers consolidating their remote X-ray screening facilities to handle multiple airports.

This approach is not just suitable for passenger screening; cargo handlers are increasingly looking to security providers to be flexible about the screening methods they use. This creates a real opportunity for screening companies to differentiate themselves by providing equipment and services that takes advantage of the development of new screening methods.

Hire the Right People

While equipment and technology are critical, the quality of the passenger experience will always reflect the interaction with the staff who manage the process. The challenge for providers is that security screening has traditionally been a skilled and demanding, yet low paid, job and it is important the contractor motivates their staff effectively. That means developing a culture, supported by training, that underlines that the role is not just to give security compliance, but to give customer service as part of the wider airport operation.

“…the role is not just to give security compliance, but to give customer service as part of the wider airport operation…”

This is getting more difficult in a world where employees are joining the gig economy, have less loyalty to one employer and where we are seeing increasing part time and freelance working. We are seeing employees looking for constraint-free work, anywhere anytime. At the same time, the existing workforce is ageing, working longer, and having to adapt to technological advances. Contractors face the challenge of ensuring a transient workforce commits to its work and not wasting investment in training on people who do not stay in the job.

To do this security contractors will need to recognise that an evolving workforce will have new and different expectations and respond by creating working conditions and rosters that mean they attract and keep well-trained and skilled staff.

Prepare to Meet New Threats

The physical security threats to airports continue to evolve but are broadly well-known. However, research by PA Consulting has shown that CEOs and CIOs at leading airports now rank cyber security in their top ten risks. With the European Aviation Safety Agency saying there are an average of 1,000 attacks a month on aviation systems, this is an increasingly important challenge.

The increased use and availability of data brings real advantages, but the growing number of connected systems is making airports more vulnerable to cyber-attacks. There are obvious threats from external hacks, but a considerable number of security breaches come from insiders; a challenge for airports due to the number of third-party contractors employed.

That means security service providers need to train and empower all employees to report suspicious activity. The Holistic Management of Employee Risk (HoMER) framework, developed by PA with the UK’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure gives one approach, which can help employers to do this. It sets out targeted security measures and interventions to spot high-risk workplace behaviour and reduce the risk of employees carrying out attacks or exploiting vulnerabilities, whether these result from acts of malice or negligence.

While the threat of cyber-attack from insiders is new, there are also other real risks from insiders using their access to enable a physical terrorist attack, as well as smuggling and human trafficking.

All this underlines that airports need to take a holistic view of insider risk across all their direct and indirect employees. They will either need a mechanism to monitor all airport employees, or they will need robust assurance that the security contractor is mitigating the insider risk adequately itself.

Meeting the Demands of the Airports of the Future

The choice of security screening providers is becoming more complex, and airports need to look beyond cost and compliance when they assess bidders and draw up contracts.

However, there are also opportunities to empower providers to create a better customer experience. There is real potential for providers to use more integrated data and modern technology to make a real difference to how long passengers must wait at security and to make the entire process easier and more efficient. This will become ever more important as growth in passenger numbers puts further pressure on capacity.

Some airports are starting to seize these opportunities but there is more to do to ensure that security screening providers play their full part in meeting the demands of the airports of the future.

Adam Brownson
Adam Brownson

Adam Brownson is an aviation security expert at PA Consulting. He works with airports, airlines, cargo handlers and regulators to deliver complex programmes that improve security compliance and operational performance. Early in his career, he worked with the UK DfT, European Commission, and CATSA, developing policy and trialling novel security.

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