This opinion piece was written by Deborah Grau. The opinion of the author does not necessarily correspond with that of the editorial team. Want your opinion to be featured on AeroTime? Send us a line at [email protected].

Globalization increases the opportunities for travelers from all classes and nationalities to cross borders easily and freely. Every day, millions of people pass through airport doors and security screenings. Simultaneously, terrorists are obsessed with attacking airports because of the significant consequences for the country attacked. Aviation security is a critical component of national security which is costly, controversial to civil liberties and complicated.

There is an urgent need to establish up-to-date security processes and tools across the world. These will help to respond to the growth of passengers walking through airports, the aircraft movements at airports and political structures of countries. It might also require modifications in policies and regulation. While security procedures have improved since the Cuba hijackings in the 60s, the September 11 attacks and the latest attacks at airports in USA, Turkey, and Belgium, the current situation seems to be more complicated given the increased terrorism threat.

Since 2012, several countries have contacted the State of Israel to carry out training by security instructors and to receive an audit of aviation security. Israel has always emphasized the significance of maintaining adequate levels of employee training, awareness of the public and resources to maintain specific security standards. Security layers take place further from the gates in order to stop any armed or suspicious person from getting closer to the apron and the aircraft itself.

To enhance security levels, Tel Aviv airport has different security layers which require an incredible level of coordination between the people involved. This approach is based on random checks and on daily risk assessment.  The checkpoint far away from the main entrance of the terminal represents the first visible security layer. Every car is stopped for visual examination and inspecting agents use their knowledge and training in addition to the information collected and received in order to make a decision. They pay attention to the reaction of the passengers and drivers. In addition to those agents, the checkpoint is equipped with license plate reading (LPR) technology, which is capable of setting off an alarm in the event a number plate appears on a suspicious plates list. Dominique de Thillaud, CEO of Nice Cote d’Azur International Airport explained that the airport would like to implement the road checkpoints following the Israeli security design, two miles away from the terminal of the airport. However, it will be impossible because of the location of the airport, which is between the Mediterranean Sea and the main road of the South of France.


What profiling is all about?

Israeli security experts argue that profiling should be a normal process in which the Passenger Name Record is used. Indeed, these data help to divide passengers into groups and to differentiate them for risk mitigation. Intelligence is found in demographics, historical information and other data provided in booking details. When more than one of these indicators is identified, this would indicate that the passenger represents a high risk. This one should be verified deeper in order to decrease suspicions of a connection with terrorists and to prevent a potential attack on the aircraft or at the terminal.

In Europe, the term “profiling” is not used anymore because of racial connotations; passenger differentiation is used. The European directive requires airlines to transfer the passengers’ data (PNR) to the national Passenger Information Unit (PIU) of European countries and USA in order to assist the authorities in fighting terrorism and crime. The units will exchange data and process which are accessible for five years. Although some of the factors used are secret, airlines insist that race, religion, and origin are not relevant factors. Customs and immigration officers use similar techniques to prevent contraband from entering a country, and also identify people as the potential for criminal acts according to some indicators.

Profiling systems have not always succeeded in detecting terrorists. Therefore, the Israeli approach implements a security layer of questioning each passenger. These discussions occur at different stages along the passenger’s progression through the processes at the airport. Israeli airports require passengers to come to the airport between two and three hours before their flight in order to undergo regular questioning by security agents. It might not be applicable in each airport or terminal since TLV airport’s traffic represents only 20% of the traffic at Terminal 2 of London Heathrow. Israel has an airport connectivity of 5,748, when the UK has ten times more and a hub connectivity of 154,000 while the total hub connectivity in Germany is 107,336. The process might be long and can disturb the main operations and passengers’ flow at the airport and might be a soft target.

The third layer, behavior detection, was developed in 1969 in Israel. The purpose of screening people is not only to discover weapons. Today, objects do not represent all the danger. Terrorists have hostile behavior and illegal intentions. The stories of Murphy, the Shoe Bomber, and the Underwear Bomber demonstrate that a shift has been made from hostile objects to some hostile persons with terrible intents. The TSA had 3,131 behavior detection agents deployed in 176 airports, in 2013 and it has proceeded to 79 investigations and 30 passengers being denied boarding. Human behavior analysis is not considered a complimentary layer of security by IATA or the European Commission. However, the legal context contains enough material to implement this practice. EC Regulation 300/2008 defines “screening” as the technology or other means to identify prohibited items. Human observations are not excluded. Article 1.5 also highlights the recommendation of patrols and surveillance in order to deter any suspicious behavior.

Finally, security screening – where carry-ons and passengers are screened – has come to be accepted as a normal part of the process by passengers. With a high number of security lanes in Israel, it permits the maximal rate of flow required during busy hours. Each lane is operated by a double set of monitors with two security agents. This second set of eyes increases the effectiveness of the screening by looking for passengers with malicious intent. Contrary to the phenomena of stress identified at security lanes in other airports, in Israel, no one is asked to remove liquids, gels and aerosols or shoes. The core idea is to improve the overall experience of the passenger by reducing the time spent on screening.

International procedures have called for more prohibited items, more hand searches, and request passengers to remove their laptops and shoes. It has been argued by security trainers that the technology process should be smoother in order to distinguish dangerous from non-threatening objects for an accurate threat assessment and should reduce the focus on liquids. Some of the technologies used at airports are extremely valuable, only if used smartly.  


Limitations of machines

A machine can only detect what it has been programmed to search for. It cannot tell what it has failed to find. Human factors are significant because of the five human senses and the reasoning process. A CCTV image without any analysis by skilled agents is not truly productive. Wilfried Covent, the former security manager of Brussels Airport said: “The attacks at the airport could have been stopped or prevented if the airport security had enough resources to benefit from CCTV technologies by human factors”.

The value of the technology depends on human skills, and highly-trained workforce has to be emphasized. Employees have to feel highly responsible for this complex industry and need an understanding of the valuable assets they are surrounded by. They hold a significant responsibility; however, their salaries are still relatively low.

Countries can decide whether they use the newest technologies as body scanners.  This shows an irregularity between security at airports in the European Union. Countries have different screening procedures and equipment which is a roadblock in meeting ICAO requirements.  

During some tests made in the US in 2015, undercover agents brought banned items to TSA screeners and in 95% of the time, screeners failed to find these items. In 2017, the same kind of test took place at Minneapolis International Airport and the security scanners failed to detect explosives and weapons in 17 of the 18 cases.

The technology has shown its flaws but also permitted Israel to take into account the concern of some groups for civil liberties and considered the need to develop technology (Hold Baggage System) that will ease the process for passengers and prevent people of Arabic origins to feel discriminated against by a stricter process, interview and security checks of the bags in front of others during the interview.


No  such thing as total security

To conclude, it has been remarked that there is no central authority in the aspect of airport security and no one has the sole power to enforce aviation security rules in the world. According to the advisory bulletin of ACI Europe, the top priority should be coordination between airports and the regulator, as described in the Israeli security airport layers. The recommendations have not yet been transformed into regulations, but instead, they have become directives which set a process to be transposed into national law.

As seen in each described layer, states possess the basic regulations and foundations necessary to implement the Israeli approach, pro-active, less predictable and less attractive to terrorists. However, this approach will require adaptation to the operational and political limitations and circumstances of each airport and country. For example, the Israeli aviation security approach does not permit curbside check-in, as currently exists at some airports in the U.S. Curbside check-in allows passengers to receive their boarding passes and drop off their baggage outside of the terminal building. The Israeli aviation security approach requires knowing which passengers are sending their baggage to the airplane and verifying that those passengers are also boarding the aircraft.

The mistakes made in the case of Richard Reid and September 11, particularly as they pertain to communication, should not happen again. The PNR data system identified those people who should not have been allowed to board the plane, but they were nevertheless allowed through. Police must share information that will help prevent threats at the airport or onboard. The cargo planes bomb plot, in 2010, illustrated the significance of the information and the need to pay attention to context and to strengthen common sense.

There is no such thing as total security. The Israeli aviation security approach is not infallible. Airport security and national governments cannot prevent all threats, but they can certainly be proactive. The risk-based perspective to aviation security ensures balances between security measures and cost-effective technologies. Airports in the world have purchased equipment for billions of dollars but do not always use them to the greatest effect. Airports will first have to dismantle bureaucratic fences in order to better manage and utilize their resources.

After all, technology comes and goes but the ability to detect anomalies in behavior will always be of value. Technology can enhance human capabilities, but it cannot replace them. Take Pan Am and September 11 attacks. Airports had di in 1988 and 2001, but the catastrophe happened nevertheless. As long as humans pose challenges to security and the threat of terrorism rises, human factors will remain the center of aviation security and the focus will be on ill intent.

Regulations will need to be approved and implemented to address the current situation. Airlines will continue to add routes to their networks, airports will continue to develop master plans, and aviation security will continue to be a national and international necessity. It will require significant changes to the aviation industry as it is.

Deborah Grau is a recent graduate of Cranfield University holding an MSc. in Air Transport Management. Prior to her graduate studies, she worked for the European Mission of the Israeli Ministry of Defense in Paris. The article is based on her graduate thesis.