Sunday, May 5, 2013

Airport employees security badge breach more positive than threatening

By Prof. Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum*

The latest news sensation in airport security was recently discovered in police reports which revealed that certain airport employees at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport were using their security badges for the evil purpose of assisting family members to avoid waiting in line to board aircraft.

One solution expressed by a security consultant was to discard security badges altogether and require all security employees to be physically checked like any other passenger. That, another consultant said, would bring the airport to a standstill.

What we have in these seemingly two contradictory pieces of “advice” is the inherent conflict that imposed security rules, regulations and protocols have on the smooth operation of airports. For the engineer, what counts is processing of passengers and cargo through mass production factory principles.

But the reality of airport operations cannot hide the fact that airports are complex social organizations maintained, inhabited and operated by employees and passengers. People! The “security geek’s” assumption that employees and passengers are cogs in a well-oiled mass processing machine simply does not match up to the reality of airport behavior by either passengers or employees.

In reality, a large proportion of security decisions does not comply with rules and protocols. Recent research found that passengers negotiate their way through the security system. Even the use of technology in making security decisions depends on the degree of trust employees have in the equipment.

Bending the rules has become symptomatic of the intense commercial interest of airports to remain viable economic enterprises. One way has apparently been to allow more latitude in how security decisions are made.

How then can this inherent conflict between security rules and human behavior be reconciled?

Let’s go back to the use of the security badge to expedite getting (usually family members) through the airport without going through security processes. This non-compliant decision was likely strongly influenced by such factors as co-workers’ and friends’ opinions and support, and even the security climate in the airport.

Utilizing the security badge was a judgment call on the part of the worker that had little impact on actual security threats and fitted into a framework of adapting to the situation. This decision-making process of adapting is widespread enough that co-workers support it. This is probably why the only reason these “breaches” were reported was that they emerged from police reports. Keeping rules for “the rule’s sake” is an incongruity within the social framework of airport security.

Employees are very aware of potential and real security threats and, certainly, making it less painful for those whom they trust to get through the security system seems more positive than threatening.


 *Prof Alan (Avi) Kirschenbaum, founder and CEO of Kirschenbaum Consulting.

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