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Emerging from the Ashes: How Aviation Security Rises After COVID-19

Australia’s largest airport, Sydney International, reported in April 2020 that its passenger numbers had fallen 97 percent due to COVID-19 travel bans.

Other hub airports have seen dramatic drops. Singapore’s airport closed two terminals. Heathrow reported an 84 percent fall in passenger numbers for the three months to September. Worldwide, according to Airports Council International, passenger numbers are expected to slump almost 60 percent for 2020.

Those numbers are slowly improving but with the exception of cargo and repatriation flights, COVID-19 effectively grounded the aviation industry and as a result the industry has laid off staff in staggering numbers. Swissport, one of the world’s largest ground handlers, cut its staff by 23 percent, London City Airport sacked 35 percent of its staff in September, and Qantas has cut or furloughed over two-thirds of its staff.

Aviation security screening organizations at airports around the world have been similarly impacted, furloughing or laying off substantial numbers of frontline aviation security officers (ASOs).

While it’s not clear when meaningful international air travel will return, there are green lights appearing that point to some semblance of normal operations in 2021. These bright spots on the horizon come with significant challenges for the aviation security industry in staff retention, recruitment, and training. But this could be a chance for screening organizations to turn crisis into opportunity.

ASO Basics

An ASO is essentially a well-trained but entry level position. An airline that has furloughed 70 percent of its pilots can reasonably expect 60 percent of them to return because being a pilot is a highly specialized job with skills that are difficult to transfer.

Screening organizations, by contrast, have seen a significant proportion of their ASOs move into other fields—cleaning, warehousing, retail, and construction. Highly capable officers with good communication and customer service skills, demonstrated attention to detail, and the ability to follow procedures are highly desirable across a range of sectors—even in a tight labor market.

To mitigate against this, organizations have been shifting their ASOs into other security roles where possible, and in addition they have been keeping furloughed staff engaged through online groups, workshops, and training, with companies like ISS having staff complete weekly online threat image recognition training.

Recruitment Challenges

Nonetheless, substantial numbers of staff have been lost, and human resource departments must be ready to recruit rapidly. This is a task that will be made harder because COVID-19 will still exist, and organizations will be trying to recruit people for customer-facing roles.

The issue is alleviated somewhat by an oversupply of labor in the market. COVID-19 lockdowns have caused historic unemployment, and many people have found that their job—or the company that employed them—no longer exists.

Experienced ASOs who moved on, however, may be happier to remain in their new roles where they are not exposed to thousands of passengers a day. For example, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration reported that more than 1,000 employees had tested positive for COVID-19 as of July, and six have died. 

Training Woes

While recruitment is one thing, training en-masse is another—especially in a regulatory environment that requires ASOs to regularly undergo refresher training and recertification.

Experience shows that ASO skills fade to unacceptable levels after only a month away from the screening point. Given that many will have been away for up to 12 months, almost all will need to be retrained and recertified.

The solution to rapidly training and certifying an existing workforce—and a large number of new hires—involves, at least in part, transitioning some training online.

By moving theory training online, for example, trainee ASOs arrive in the classroom pre-skilled. In-class time is reduced and can be focused on teaching the practical skills: testing and using screening equipment, conducting passenger and baggage physical searches, and establishing sterile areas. Post-COVID-19 passenger health check training can also be delivered online.

Pre-COVID-19, basic ASO training was 10 days in-class plus on-the-job. By incorporating online training, that time can be halved.

Screening organizations are not strangers to mass recruitment and training, and most will have experience with rapid deployment at new airports or in terminals where no previous screening operations existed. To succeed, they will need to build on that experience and incorporate it into well-executed, multisite mobilization plans that draw on logistical and human resource support from other areas of the business. This will allow the reduced number of security personnel to focus solely on security operations.

Organizations with the capacity to do so will take experienced groups of staff from single sites and spread them across multiple sites, or even consider the establishment of “flying squads”—experienced teams of ASOs and supervisors who can move from site to site to mentor, guide, and oversee new staff.

Technology’s Role

While the first impression of aviation is that it is an innovative and dynamic industry, the reality is that a sector that sends 4.5 billion people a year into the air in thin metal tubes does not try new approaches on a whim just to see what will happen.

But within the last five years, aviation screening technology has rapidly evolved in ways not seen in decades. Innovation—like improved body scanners, higher-powered computer tomography screening, explosive vapor detection technology, and mass spectrometry explosive detection—is already being deployed at airports.

Technology has the potential to be part of the uptick in training solutions as well. Many aviation security industry participants have used the slowdown in operations as an opportunity to update their security policies and technology. Correctly implemented, technology can accelerate the screening process, reduce ASO numbers at a screening point, and reduce the number of interactions those ASOs have with passengers.

In addition, the introduction of large numbers of new staff can be a good time to introduce new technology as there is less change resistance from staff who are unfamiliar with “how things have always been done.”

Hidden inside this crisis is an opportunity to change screening methods, evolve training delivery, and adopt new technology to improve security and reduce long-term operational expenditures.

Screening organizations know from experience that airlines and airports provide almost no notice of passenger capacity increases—and they will expect screening operations to go from zero to 100 overnight. Additionally, the relationship between screening organizations, airports, and regulators can be combative and fraught over performance indicators, budget line items, and regulatory requirements.

For the industry to recover, relationships, communication, flexibility, and understanding will be paramount. Already, screening organizations are liaising closely with regulators on staff recertification, seeking dispensations and time extensions, and developing roadmaps to allow the workforce to return rapidly and safely. Screening organizations are also seeking to reframe their relationships with airports and airlines as partners, rather than adversaries.

More than ever, the industry needs to pull in the same direction to not just recover economically but to continue to defend against attacks as malicious actors look for weaknesses to exploit in these challenging times.

Strong leadership will empower screening organizations to emerge from COVID-19 leaner, with stronger industry relationships, streamlined training, and efficient technology. The key is not to get bogged down in the crisis, but to look up and see the opportunities.

Shannon Wandmaker is director of aviation security consulting firm Cain Wandmaker. He is the former head of cargo security for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), former chair of the Global Air Cargo Advisory Group Security Task Force, and former head of aviation security for G4S at Kuwait International Airport. Prior to his work with IATA, he led the aviation security audit and capacity development program across 44 pan-European countries for the International Civil Aviation Organization/European Civil Aviation Conference. He spent 12 years in Australian Government aviation policy and diplomatic positions and has led aviation security capacity development activities in the South Pacific and South East Asia.