Square peg, round hole: The transition from police to private aviation security screening

Square peg, round hole: The transition from police to private aviation security screening

The use of police to undertake aviation security screening is still a common practice around the world, and on its face there are a number of reasons why it might seem like a good idea. It keeps screening as a function of government, which some governments and regulators prefer, and in theory it ensures the consistent delivery of standards across all airports in the country as screening is being delivered by one organization.

In addition, having a law enforcement agency undertake screening can help mask the true cost of screening by burying it within a larger central budget.

However, in most cases the provision of aviation security is better delivered by a dedicated aviation security screening organization. So, for a country considering moving away from a police as screener model, what alternative model is best, and how hard is it to make the transition?

The police screening model dates back to the 1970s and the introduction of physical aviation security screening. Many countries, confronted with the requirement to conduct aviation security screening for the first time, saw the protection of the public as a policing issue.

Indeed, the first piece of aviation security screening equipment, the humble walk-through metal detector, got its start in prisons screening inmates for weapons, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to conclude that law enforcement was best placed to screen passengers. In addition, the use of private manned guarding companies for event and infrastructure security was nowhere near as widespread in the 1970s as it is today.

However, the problem with the police-as-screener model is it relies on the idea that policing and aviation security are the same, and that trained police officers have the skills and knowledge to conduct aviation security screening. In reality they are very different functions.

While policing is focused on crime prevention, investigation, disrupting criminal organizations, apprehending criminals, and taking charge in emergencies, security screening is a customer-oriented role focused on communication, performing routine processes, facilitating the movement of people, and using equipment skills to detect threats to aviation.

Accordingly in a police-as-screener model, overqualified police officers are deployed to deliver a function that is not aligned to their more highly trained skill set. This leads to a demotivated workforce whose individual members feel their skills are being underutilized, which in turn has the potential to lead to poor screening outcomes.

People join the police to drive fast, kick in doors and solve crimes, not to watch X-ray images and tell people to take their shoes off. Putting police officers at an airport to do access control, while their colleagues are out performing drug raids, can make an airport deployment feel like a punishment post.

In addition, the recruitment, training and deployment of police officers is slow, making the screening less flexible to changing circumstances. And even after deployment, officers are often rotated in and out of the airport environment, meaning well-trained staff are lost, and trained staff who are rotated back into the airport after more than a few months away need to be retrained.

Finally, and of concern to any aviation security regulator, the police can often be a more powerful and influential government agency than the civil aviation authority, potentially rendering a CAA impotent when it comes to the application of regulatory enforcement measures.

When it comes to aviation security screening, the best model is where regulators regulate, police do policing, and screeners screen. It’s a good division of labor, and it allows all organizations to play to their strengths.

Police officers do their best work when they’re utilizing all of their skills to provide community policing, respond to emergencies, disrupt crime, and other core policing functions.

Similarly, the best aviation security screening outcomes are achieved when a dedicated workforce of specially trained screeners is deployed to provide screening. In particular in emerging countries, or countries that employ third country nationals, an airport security position is often seen as a position of prestige. Far from being a punishment post, screening officers in many countries are highly motivated to succeed in their role.

So, if a country is seeking to transition away from the police screening model, what are the options?

Around the world the main screening models are the use of a dedicated government agency (for example, the TSA in the U. S.) the use of a dedicated statutory corporation (for example AVSECO in Hong Kong or the Aviation Security Service in New Zealand [NZ AVSEC]), or the use of private screening companies.

The use of a dedicated government agency to deliver screening was popular in the 1990s, but has somewhat fallen out of favor as more countries moved to a privatized model (the TSA being the exception, where the U. S. moved from a privatized model to a government agency model post-9/11).

On the plus side, all personnel across the country work for the same agency, which allows for (theoretically) consistent standards to be delivered across all airports. In addition, a government-delivered model – similar to, but different from a police screening model – keeps screening operations under direct government control.

However, there are a number of drawbacks. Government agencies are often slow to change, lack operational flexibility, and are beholden to outdated bureaucracy, including recruitment and procurement processes. In addition, budgets can often be set based not on operational need but on central government budget allocations.

Similar but different to a government agency model is the establishment of a dedicated Statutory or Crown corporation. A number of countries, including Denmark and New Zealand, have implemented this model, whereby screening functions are delivered by a state-owned company.

This model is often considered to be effective at balancing the need for government control and oversight with the delivery of cost effective and flexible aviation security screening outcomes. These structures often encourage faster decision-making and greater operating efficiencies than a government agency. Regulatory oversight is still relatively simple – with just a single organization to regulate – but without government bureaucracy being intrusive in day-to-day operations. However, the government as owner of the organization must ensure appropriate separation between regulator and operations. In addition, the costs can be higher than a fully privatized model.

The use of manned guarding companies to deliver aviation security screening services — or privatization — is probably the most common screening model, and is popular because it’s the cheapest and most flexible way to conduct screening. When countries decide to change their screening model, with a few notable exceptions, the tide of change leans towards privatization.

Private screening companies keep costs low, can recruit quickly, and have the flexibility to adapt to changing aviation security screening requirements. In the most part they are free from direct political interference, and can react quickly to opportunities and market forces.

But there are drawbacks. In a more complicated regulatory environment, multiple companies will be involved in the provision of aviation security screening, sometimes even at the same airport. The screening companies will usually not be under direct government control, with the regulator regulating the airport operator, who in turn contracts out the delivery of screening services. This can complicate regulatory compliance.

In addition, the relationship between the airport operator (who is paying) and the screening company (who is delivering) can be focused on cost reduction rather than security outcomes. If not managed correctly, this can have a significant impact on screening outcomes.

However, when a nation is looking to transition away from a police-as-screener model, a privatized model is often preferred. And because the transition away from a police model can often be sensitive politically and culturally, the semi-privatized — or police + private screening company model — is usually the most palatable.

This is a model implemented successfully around the world, and in particular in Middle East countries like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and others.

The model ensures the policing agency continues to control operations, while using the screening company as a tool to assist in in securing the airport.

There are two main variations of the police + private screening model.

The first is where police officers continue to undertake “core” screening functions, such as X-ray image interpretation, WTMD observation, and ETD screening, while private screening officers undertake all other functions such as loading, bag search, and other tasks.

The second variation is where private screening officers undertake all screening functions, under the broad supervision of police officers.

In general, the second approach tends to deliver better screening outcomes. With screening officers focused on the delivery of screening services, police officers are freed up to undertake supervision and resource management, deal with disruptive passengers, and make arrests when required.

The result is that all personnel are operating to their maximum abilities, and staff are happier, more motivated, and more effective in their roles.

The other positive of incorporating a private screening company is that it adds flexibility to screening operations. As manned guarding companies can typically recruit, train and deploy screening officers faster than a policing agency can recruit, train and deploy police officers, the model allows for faster adaptation to changing circumstances.

It’s worth noting, though, that the police + private model doesn’t alleviate the issue of the policing agency being more powerful and influential than the civil aviation authority, and there is still the risk that well-trained and highly capable police officers can be lost through routine redeployments that rotate them out of the airport environment.

However, in general a police + private model will deliver better screening outcomes than a police-only model, and provides a palatable transition towards a fully privatized approach, if that is the long-term goal of the country. Though as always, there is not a one-size-fits-all solution.

The right model will depend on a variety of factors including the size of the country and number of airports, the sophistication of the aviation security regulatory environment, the availability of people to serve as screening officers, cultural and religious sensitivities, the threat environment, and the government’s appetite for loss of direct control of screening operations.

Changing screening models is a difficult thing to do, and not something countries undertake lightly. Very often, nations take an “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” approach to screening, only seeking change when there is a significant aviation security incident, or there is significant pressure applied from other nations regulators.

But the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) does recommend that where it is economically viable and in the best interest of airports and users, nations consider establishing autonomous entities to operate their airports to improve efficiency and financial performance, and this includes the provision of aviation security screening.

Emerging screening technologies and the trend toward passenger differentiation, rather than a single screening method for all passengers, mean screening organizations are having to show flexibility and be more agile.

In addition, the days of every screening officer being a generalist who is trained and deployed the same way may be numbered. New technology and new passenger segmentation models may ultimately lead to specialization of screener roles, for example, dedicated 3D CT X-ray operators, behavior detection analysts, or biometric identity management specialists.

On that basis, nations should look to implement the most flexible arrangements practical for their operating environment, while also striving to implement a model that appropriately trains and then incentivizes all staff, be they screeners, police officers or government employees.

Human factors, perhaps more than any other single element, are critical in the delivery of effective aviation security and ironically, the introduction of increasingly more innovative screening technologies and systems will likely make human factors more, not less critical.

The right people, in the right positions, correctly trained and motivated, will beat the best equipment operated by a disinterested screener every time.

Shannon Wandmaker FRAeS AVSEC PM is the director of aviation security consulting company Cain Wandmaker, the aviation security capacity building specialist for the Pacific Aviation Safety Office (PASO), and an Airports Council International (ACI) trainer. He is the former head of security for G4S Kuwait International Airport, the former head of cargo security for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and led the aviation security audit and capacity development program across 44 pan-European countries for the European Civil Aviation Conference (ECAC) in Paris. Wandmaker spent 12 years in Australian Government aviation policy, operational and diplomatic positions, including as first secretary (transport) in the Australian Embassy, Abu Dhabi. He can be contacted at shannon@cainwandmaker.com.