Much has been said, and will be said, about the enormous impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on air transport. The severe and prolonged downturn in traffic is creating what would have been once unimaginable pressures. At the same time, the risk of unlawful interference with civil aviation is evolving amid new uncertainties about terrorist capabilities, vulnerabilities, and the consequences of attacks on an already fragile global system. Aviation security measures are being rethought and redesigned to accommodate public health imperatives without compromising on security effectiveness. Changes in leadership positions important to the future of aviation security will unfold in 2021. The timing and form of aviation’s recovery are subjects of much speculation. Apprehension is abundant for so many reasons.
This edition marks the end of Aviation Security International, our reliable companion through many of the ups and downs the sector has faced. Soon to come is the launch of Transport Security International with new opportunities to share experiences and perspectives.
There seems no more appropriate time to ask this question: how do we get from here to the future of aviation security?
“…progress in enhancement efforts must not be about creating more security. It must be about: properly defining the desired outcomes; applying the necessary resources to achieve them effectively, efficiently and lawfully; and ensuring that the desired outcomes have been achieved…”
Be guided by the principles of aviation security
The foundations of the international aviation security system (and domestic systems) are set out in Annex 17 — Security to the Convention on International Civil Aviation. Its architects saw the potential for massive challenges arising in this field of public safety that was (and still is) simultaneously at the nexus of the public and private sectors, individual and societal rights and freedoms, theory and practice, political expediency and methodical rigour, civil and police/military responsibilities, poverty and affluence, globalisation and sovereignty, as well as the brightness of human spirit and the darkness of terror. They anticipated shocks that could deeply affect societies together with the need for a steady platform to withstand the most adverse conditions.
With these tensions in mind, Annex 17 was purposefully crafted to emphasise certain principles fundamental to achieving the best possible aviation security results. These include the paramount importance of safety, having a single aviation security authority in each State, trust in host State responsibility, clarity in the allocation of responsibilities for carrying out security measures, precision in elaborating the security measures that must be carried out, flexibility to accommodate local capabilities, balancing security with facilitation and safety needs, recognition that not all threats can be prevented, aviation security risk mitigation is always a work in progress, and aviation security is needed over the long term. The foresight of those who crafted Annex 17 is inspiring.
A principle worth special emphasis is the fundamental importance of cooperation, communication and coordination (the ‘3Cs’) among the many entities responsible for aviation security. It acknowledges that: aviation security benefits all, is never the responsibility of any one entity, does not succeed when unnecessary barriers impede organised, collective action; and thrives when commitment to the ‘3Cs’ is fully embraced.
Part of adherence to these principles in our fast-changing world is recognising that their continuing relevance requires that adjustments and additions be made to reflect evolving circumstances. Successive Annex 17 amendments have, for instance, greatly sharpened focus on the principle of applying informed risk assessment and rigorous management in the use of scarce resources. The principles also now reflect outcomes-based security, and the dependence of effective and efficient aviation security on innovation and excellence to optimise human capital and technology. They recognise that progress in enhancement efforts must not be about creating more security. It must be about: properly defining the desired outcomes; applying the necessary resources to achieve them effectively, efficiently and lawfully; and ensuring that the desired outcomes have been achieved.
All of these principles are as relevant today and for tomorrow as they were when first enshrined in Annex 17. They are essential navigation aids to follow on the path ahead.
Learn from evolving public safety experience with COVID-19 and apply the lessons to aviation security
Nothing defines the character of an organisation and its people like their response to a large-scale crisis. Such events and their aftermath test assumptions, plans, processes, methods, systems, skills, strategies, laws, priorities, adaptability and more in ways that cannot be simulated. They allow for excellence to shine and they can expose gaps and shortcomings with unfortunate immediacy and consequence. Inevitably, they lead to a new awareness of organisational development needs and, hopefully, to the implementation of necessary improvements.
“…aviation security crisis events, monumental as they are, fortunately happen with low frequency and without predictability…”
The intensity of crisis events opens the minds of leaders to new possibilities, focuses staff on the tasks at hand, shifts and shapes public policy at an unusual pace, can cause existing resources to be reallocated and new resources to be found, and can reorient relationships with customers and partners.
Throughout the history of aviation security, many crisis events have marked transformations in how security is organised, executed and evaluated.
- The bombing of Air India flight 182 in 1985 resulted in a comprehensive review of aviation security in Canada, new investments in screening technology and screener competence, and a new national regulatory structure and organisation. At the global level, Annex 17 was amended to require passenger-baggage reconciliation as a new baseline global security measure.
- The bombing of Pan Am flight 103 (Lockerbie) in 1988 led to a comprehensive national overhaul of aviation security in the United Kingdom and was the catalyst for comprehensive screening of checked baggage on international flights.
- The attacks on 11 September 2001 led, among other things, to creation of the United States Transportation Security Administration, the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, new aviation security taxes and charges, and massive acquisitions of security technology (and to the creation of the global maritime transportation security framework).
- The 2006 plot to bomb transatlantic flights using liquid explosives severely disrupted air travel and drove controls on the sale and carriage of duty-free beverages as well as development of new screening methods and technologies that remains in progress.
- The 2010 failed printer cartridge plot interrupted the flow of air cargo around the world at great cost, and drove the creation of new measures and alliances to strengthen air cargo security.
“…through tragic events, and despite quickly shifting priorities, tight budgets, the occasional loss of focus by decision-makers and other challenges, the aviation security discipline has risen to every challenge…”
Each of these resulted in great organisational upheavals and gave meaning to the popular phrase “the only constant in life is change”. The point is that aviation security crisis events, monumental as they are, fortunately happen with low frequency and without predictability. They are never wanted and are always challenging. They are also rich opportunities to acquire and reinforce knowledge, experience and skill.
The parallels between public health risk management and aviation security risk management are almost uncountable, but include risk analysis, public communications, citizen engagement, government-industry relations, building confidence, aligning control measures with the threat in a highly dynamic situation, lockdowns and recovery, difficulties in sustaining restrictive measures over the long term, organisation surge capacity challenges, managing parallel threats (COVID-19 and influenza) and so on.
Today’s aviation security leaders at all levels who do not apply the broad lessons learned from the COVID-19 experience to enhance aviation security will miss out on a key strategic opportunity for continuous improvement. Observe. Reflect. Learn. Improve.
Hold on to optimism
Optimism can seem to be in short supply when aircraft are parked, terminals are quiet, staff are on furlough or unemployed, revenue is down, another wave of COVID-19 is here, and a vaccine is not yet immediately and widely available.
Despite terrorist attacks, previous pandemics, economic decline, accidents, environmental catastrophes, shaken consumer confidence or any combination of these risks, aviation has flourished over time. As massive as the current challenges are, even larger is our long-term economic and social need for and dependence on aviation.
The tight grip aviation security professionals have on optimism is a defining characteristic. We recognise that aviation is about bringing people together, enabling prosperity and building the future with confidence. Through tragic events, and despite quickly shifting priorities, tight budgets, the occasional loss of focus by decision-makers and other challenges, the aviation security discipline has risen to every challenge.
Resilience is in the DNA of civil aviation security and will help fuel its professionals through the industry’s recovery.
With over 35 years of experience in aviation security, Mr. Marriott was a senior executive at Transport Canada before having global leadership responsibility for ICAO’s AVSEC and Facilitation Programme. He is now President, James Marriott Consulting.