Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The US presidential elections and selective airport security

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

The upcoming US presidential elections and the Republican National Convention approval of a platform calling on privatizing the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) have placed into stark contrast two opposing points of view of how airport security should be organized, maintained and operated.

But, as they are both couched in terms of ideology, we are faced with an empirical issue that has never been systematically tested, namely which perspective can produce results that will match what the visionaries of the future airport are looking for?

As ideological perspectives they both suffer from a number of deficiencies that can be simply called “selective facts.” The more scientific term is closer to “cognitive dissonance” where two contending sets of facts force the individual to ignore or place more weight on one set in favor of the other so as to maintain a degree of behavioral consistency. For those who smoke, for example, the fact that cigarette smoking kills is countered by another fact that “everyone dies” as justification for continuing smoking.

This also applies to privatizing airports or keeping them under public scrutiny when “a priori” ideology acts as a prism for the choice of facts to accept and those to ignore.

And what are the facts? This becomes a moot point as “facts” can be selective depending on the particular ideology one prefers. But there remains a light at the end of the tunnel that should provide the discerning reader with a picture of reality of airport security and not based on ideologically selective facts. I am referring to the recent BEMOSA project examining European airports across the continent which was inclusive of both the land and air aspects of airports.

The results of the BEMOSA study reflect a broad picture of airport security operations based on examining employees and passengers across an entire airport’s organizational structure and staff.

The picture provided was of the airport as a complex social organization with a variety of security behaviors that do not fit into the airport’s highly regulated, rule-dominated security system. Bending, breaking, and even going against the rules, frequently occur. Trusting technology affects whether employees follow rules or ignore them. False alarms are the name of the game.

In short, the BEMOSA description and analysis of behavior in airports shows us that there is no “zero-sum” game in airport security and that the present security system on paper does not exist in reality. And, yet, airports continue to grow and function.

What this suggests is that airports are really both private and public organizations. There are the security rules and protocols dictated by the public authorities (the TSA), but embedded in the security system are employees whose organizational security behavior reflects private bottom-line survival needs linked to adaptation and flexibility when the situation calls for it. In short, there is no ideal airport.

If these are the empirical (and not ideological) facts, what can be made of the opposing perspectives to enhancing airport security but simultaneously keeping us, the passengers, happy and the bad guys at bay? Should airports be given the ability to determine what is best for its particular needs or should we continue the public-associated oversight in place today?

As both exist within an airport’s organizational structure, it really comes down to a decision about balance – how much weight will be given to rules and regulations against how much flexibility will be allowed for employees in making judgment calls? That will be the true test toward developing airport security as envisioned for the future.


*The writer is the initiator and coordinator of BEMOSA (Behavioral Modeling of Security in Airports).

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Airport Security: One Fit for All?

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

In recent months, major security agencies governing the propagation of airport security rules, regulations and protocols have been under pressure to modify a few of the more invasive and annoying rules at security check points. This, of course, was not to make passengers feel better but more likely in consideration of “bottom line” finances. Angry passengers vote with their feet to either put off additional flights or choose alternative ways to get where they want to go. This hurts business, which is exactly what airports are.

One of the many ways to increase business is to ease the flow-through of passengers. This leads to reduced costs in flight delays and adds more time to purchase items at the airport mall, and, of course, can be more cost effective by increasing the utilization of security personnel per passenger “unit.”

But the idea of easing passenger flow requires understanding of both the rationale for the rules and regulations, as well as how security employees make use/or not of these rules for making security decisions. As this requires a substantial investment in basic research, the law of minimum effort comes into play.

One result has been that leading spokespersons for various agencies have been touting the idea that it is advisable to move from the “one rule fits all” to a more flexible position that would differentiate between passengers. This requires minimum effort and cost; and so we now have programs such as “trusted traveler,” and modifying checks on “young children,” as well as other marginal measures as a way of getting people through the system.

But the basic security guidelines imprinted in security employees training regimes remain in place and are utilized – upon penalty of dismissal – for just about everyone.

For passengers and even security employees, the security rites of passage seem to be nearly identical from airport to airport. But why should anyone be surprised? Airports are engineering marvels that use the most highly sophisticated tools to get us from one place to another. What is missing is that the “plan” assumes employees and passengers will act rationally. Big mistake there!

As the results of the first in-depth study of European airports conducted by the EU-funded BEMOSA research project demonstrated, not only do passengers not always act rationally but to some extent employees do not either. The study, which was based on 360 interviews held at eight different European airports, found, for instance, that one of the biggest headaches for security employees are rowdy/drunk passengers.

For security managers a troubling phenomenon is the repeated occurrences where the rules and regulations are bent, broken and even ignored; where false alarms are assumed whenever an “incident” such as unattended baggage occurs.

But despite the similarity in physical configuration and security rules and regulations across airports, the behavioral patterns of both passengers and security employees actually vary from airport to airport. An analysis of the informal social and communications networks among the eight airports studied – a key component that reflects the actual inner workings of any organization – was found to differ substantially. Even levels of rule compliance differed!

Simply put, “one fit for all” does not come close to describing passenger and employee behaviors despite all the efforts to impose them on employees and passengers by physical and administrative means.

And so, despite the facts, the overall perspective of “one rule fits all” still remains a cornerstone of airport security and is generally applied to all airports. There are of course very good reasons for imposing standardized measures on airport security so that stringent rules governing procedures and protocols are in place and maintained. In fact, an airport’s certification is contingent upon fulfilling them.

But a closer examination of these standards shows that they are primarily focused on the physical security of airports. Little or no mention is made of people – neither passengers nor employees. Technology will provide us with the answers.

Not surprising, this attitude may be the Achille’s heel of airport security. Whichever way you turn, security decisions, however automated they may be, are still in the hands of security employees! Someone has to interpret the machines output. This was clearly found in the BEMOSA results where decisions at security points (screeners) depended on the degree to which employees trust security technology.

If the technology was seen as the best way to catch “bad guys,” decisions complied with the rules. But, if technology was seen as one (of many) alternatives to thwarting a threat, then compliance was much more relaxed with bending and breaking rules more commonplace.

Now let’s look at the issue of “one fit for all” from the passengers’ perspective: a viewpoint which does not make too much sense. Passengers come in all kinds of shapes and forms; they enter/exit the airport in groups, by family or alone. They are frequent or first-time flyers, tourists or business persons. Some get nervous at seeing all the armed guards and police; some know the routine, while others need help.

Yet, the security system lumps them all together as cogs in the mass production system designed by engineers to help them “flow” through the maze of airport security. Disregarding them as both individuals and possessing a variety of cultural, religious and social values that affect their behavior and responses (basically dehumanizing them) simply misses the point that “one fit for all” will not work. It is a formula for creating sometimes intractable problems. And this is exactly what happens.

A careful examination of the screening process shows this to be the case. The time it takes for passengers to get through this basic checkup can more or less be predicted by their cultural and social background characteristics as well as the type of flyers they are.

A first-time flyer (for example, a tourist from a country where negotiating is part of the national culture) will likely object when the screeners find a bottle of “spirits” in a carry-on bag. Negotiations will begin; time will pass; the queue will get longer and perhaps even a confrontation will occur. Why? The rules don’t accommodate for these culturally based differences. Knowing that negotiations are likely to occur can be anticipated and dealt with. Being deaf and not responding can lead to an escalation of the situation.

Here again, by discarding the “one fit for all” notion, simple solutions are possible. It takes little effort to understand that the characteristics of passengers in a specific airport are to a large degree unique. Small regional airports attract local populations which may be fairly homogeneous, while hub airports are filled with persons from a multi-cultural and social background mix.

Security employees could go beyond their rule compliance training to incorporate sensitivity to these differences and focus their efforts on the human factor to avoid “flow-through” difficulties.

In fact, it probably is already being done. The BEMOSA project discovered that security employee compliance with the rules and regulations varied by airport. Why would this be so? One could speculate that it is probably because security employees have adapted their security behaviors to match the passenger population characteristics that flow through the airport. This of course needs further analysis, but from corroborating interviews and ethnographic material, it seems a very likely scenario.

If this is the case, the “one fit for all” slogan, which is the natural outcome of those who view airports as mass processing units, has missed its target. Our research has clearly demonstrated this probability. By accepting the “one fit for all,” credo policy makers have unfortunately left behind the key components to airport viability and continuity, namely the employees and passengers – the human factor.

This factor, people, is what makes each airport a unique organization. It also requires that the security process within each be examined within its own cultural, economic and social framework. To lump all airports together misses the point.

It is highly recommended that each airport conduct its own internal security audit based on the guidelines provided by BEMOSA. This can provide airports with a clear picture of the main issues its security personnel are facing and how they differ from other airports.

Once such research is carried out, a detailed working plan can be drafted leading to an improvement in overall security and, no less important, a reduction in costs.


Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum from the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel, is a world expert in disaster management and initiator and coordinator of BEMOSA.