Adapting and growing

ACI World’s senior director for security, technology and innovation, Billy Shallow, addresses some of the key issues facing airport security in a continuously evolving landscape.

Travel is officially back, with passengers in the Northern Hemisphere taking to airports to jet off on their summer holidays and business travel beginning to bounce back.

As a result, some markets are enjoying higher traffic levels than before the pandemic and the spotlight is once again firmly on passenger facilitation and how well airports can meet this rising demand.

Whilst airports and airlines have been working together to ensure and minimise disruption, such as the events seen in summer 2022, there is no doubt that there are still challenges to enable seamless and frictionless journeys.

Capacity challenges remain across the industry whether it be through air traffic control, baggage facilitation or terminal constraints. Security is no exception. Indeed, tightly peaked summer airline schedules have led to multiple examples of airports experiencing longer queue times than they would want to ensure high satisfaction levels.

Staffing challenges

However, the main protagonist in added security queues comes from staffing shortages, still fallen foul to the COVID-19 pandemic. When airports and designated screening authorities reduced their staffing levels in line with depleted traffic levels, the aviation industry lost a lot of skilled security workers, who seemingly didn’t rush back to their previous jobs.

The need for flexibility in working patterns and remote working, fuelled by challenging the status quo of working conditions, has seen fewer security screeners return to their jobs, given the limited flexibility that the career allows, coupled by disadvantageous shift patterns.

This has had a knock-on effect with screening during peak summer and some airports are struggling to backfill positions, resulting in higher queues with lower service levels.

This is further exasperated by the time it takes to become a security screener with the necessary classroom and on-the-job mandatory training. The skills required to be a screener sometimes do not match the pay offered by companies and therefore there are less and less people applying for the roles.

Furthermore, the time it takes to conduct the necessary background and security vetting checks, often disengage people from the process, whilst there are other jobs on the market available to start immediately. All of these challenges have had a substantial effect on the aviation security industry.

Could new technology help reduce the issues?

There is an up-and-coming versatile solution that could help reduce the airport security staffing challenges, which also has an added security benefit. The application of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning deployed at security checkpoints has the potential to revolutionise the screening process in years to come.

These learnings combine into Automated Prohibited Item Detection Systems (APIDS), which can automatically screen bags in the cabin baggage screening process using focused algorithms.

There are over 100 different combinations of items of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s prohibited items list. This makes life as a security screener challenging with constantly evolving threats and new items being added to the list, with very little ever removed.

The use of APIDS can help screeners as an assist function, or in the future could have the capability to automatically screen bags and only send alarmed images for interpretation by a screener.

There are multiple trials of these algorithms underway, such as in the Netherlands, the UK, China, and the USA, with promising results. In fact, on April 1, 2023, the European Civil Aviation Conference passed a regulation that allows for APIDS algorithms to be implemented and reduce the number of non-alarmed images being sent to a screener dependant on the standard and advancement of the algorithm, where Computed Tomography machines are installed.

The CT machines automatically detect explosive material and when combined with APIDS algorithms offer a far higher level of security than previously seen. Whilst no algorithms are officially approved as of today, the testing protocols have been developed and we expect to see these be implemented over the next couple of years.

The benefit to the industry is threefold. Clearly the most important element is the added security effectiveness these algorithms can bring. However, there are also key advantages to both the airport and passenger.

For airports, it can boost operational efficiency by reducing the number of bags being manually screened by humans, and therefore free up screeners to focus on alarmed and risk-based bags. For the passenger, these algorithms often scan the images up to five times faster than a human operator, and therefore the process should be more seamless, thus reducing the security queues.

Threats to civil aviation

The current threats to civil aviation have not disappeared. The existing threats from terrorism and acts of unlawful interference still exist, and the industry needs to continue to deter and prevent successful attacks.

The highest risk of Improvised Explosive Devices is still paramount. Whilst CT machines help prevent these devices by automatically detecting explosives, there are still many countries that rely on conventional X-ray or dual view systems. States should continue to update risk assessments based on their local requirements.

Whilst not seen as an act of unlawful interference, disruptions caused by activism is becoming increasingly common at airports. Protestors accessing airport facilities such as those seen in France and Germany are creating security challenges across airports.

Whilst the protestors are largely concerned with disrupting airport operations because of climate change, they have effectively highlighted vulnerabilities in the airport security system, which potentially could be be utilised by terrorists and those with more severe ill-intent.

Airports need to ensure their facilities are protected, and regularly conduct risk-assessments and vulnerability assessments to counteract and deter would be perpetrators.

The cyber conundrum

One of the most significant and problematic risks that airports and, indeed, all other industries face, are cyber-attacks.

Phishing campaigns, targeted ransomware and operational system target shutdowns are starting to increase on ICAO’s risk register. Whilst still at a lower risk than traditional terrorist attacks, would-be-perpetrators, are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their targetting against aviation.

Cyber groups attempted attacks on more than 70% of the world’s airports in 2022. This trend is becoming increasingly worrying. Airports need to ensure they have a robust cyber security programme in place with incident response plans available to ensure that effective damage control strategies are in place to reduce reputational damage and ensure on-going business continuity.

Working with all stakeholders

Montreal based ACI World works with multiple different agencies to improve security across the globe ensuring no state is left behind. With the International Civil Aviation Organization being headquartered metres from our offices, we play a key role in helping shape requirements for security at airports across the globe, whilst advocating for airport interests.

The annual aviation security panel meeting, bringing together States and key security issues across the world for discussion, took place in Montreal earlier this year.

ACI World submitted two papers that received overwhelming support from States and demonstrated clear requirements in the industry. The first was about the importance of taking note and proactive measures surrounding mental health challenges within the industry workforce, accelerated by the pandemic.

The other was on the aforementioned topic of APIDS and the requirement to accelerate innovation within the industry to combat threats and boost the passenger experience.

Both topics are key to ensuring that the workforce and technology combine to ensure the most effective risk mitigation measures are in place, whilst supporting our colleagues around the globe.

Final call

Safety and security are paramount in the industry to ensure business continuity and facilitate travel. The requirements to ensure good levels of facilitation and customer experience must be weighed against the ever-evolving threats.

Threats to airports not only come from bad actors, but in 2023 and into the future will also involve disruptions by activism, mental health and of course the insider threat.

The aviation security industry is dynamic and must weigh up the level of risk appetite by regulators and make choices to protect the industry, whilst also facilitating the requirement of travel.

What is clear is that we will not be defeated by a global pandemic, and we will not be beaten by terrorism. The industry is resilient, innovative and secure. That is something no-one can put a price on.

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