Looking to the future of airport security

A seemingly never-ending queue, the frantic patting down of pockets, shoes and belts stuffed into trays, the monotonous refrain of “please remove any liquids, iPads or laptops”: welcome to airport security.

The global airport security market is expected to exceed $12.8 billion by 2023, up from $8.82 billion in 2015. However according to the International Air Transport Association’s 2016 passenger survey it is one of the biggest points of pain for travellers. In an ideal world we only want to pass through security and border control once, without losing any of our clothing or possessions.

From universal screening in 1973, 100ml liquid restrictions in 2006 and increased use of full body scanners in 2009, it goes without saying that airport security has evolved over the past decades. However these developments have often come in reaction to incidents: from 1968-72 a commercial aircraft was hijacked every other week and in 2009 a planned airplane bombing was foiled when explosives concealed in underwear failed to detonate.

As terrorists become more innovative in concealing weapons and identifying weak spots, airport security must adapt. The tragic attacks on Atatürk and Brussels airports last year have raised further debates about whether airport security should be expanded beyond the perimeter of the terminal.

New security approaches

CT “walkways” could enable simultaneous scanning of luggage and people as they make their way through the airport

To satisfy the demands of the modern traveller while keeping them safe, airports require security systems that don’t interfere with a passenger’s transit through the airport, but do detect threats.

Advancing in security technology

One potential solution is to use computerised tomography (CT) scanners, more commonly used to scan the brain to assess head injuries, to check carry-on baggage. This high-definition, 3D technology has the capability to check for liquids and electrical components held in bags. This could revolutionise the awkward fumbling of luggage both before and after the scanner, to create a swift process.

Indeed, CT scanners have long been used to check bags entering the plane’s hold. But, until recently, the technology was too large and noisy to be used in crowded areas.

In a talk delivered at Lloyd’s of London, aviation security expert Norman Shanks suggested the technology could be taken even further. Rather than separate people and their luggage for scanning, CT “walkways” could scan people as they made their way through the airport, embedding security seamlessly into the journey from entrance to gate.

Scaling up behavioural analysis

In his speech Shanks also raised the role of behavioural analysis in threat detection. While profiling is considered a controversial technique, he argued it could support a seamless approach to inspection.

AVATAR is an interactive screening technology that can pick out passengers who exhibit suspicious behaviour

In airports such as Israel’s Ben Gurion, behavioural profiling is heavily relied upon and the 100ml liquid restriction is not in place. Nevertheless, this approach does raise concerns, not least of which are the social implications, accuracy and the difficulty of scaling up its application to deal with the large number of passengers who travel through major hubs.

Yet, detecting behavioural abnormalities does remain relevant to airport security. The Automated Virtual Agent for Truth Assessments in Real Time (AVATAR) is an interactive screening technology that can pick out passengers who exhibit suspicious behaviour. The robot interacts with travellers and can detect changes in eyes, voice, gestures and posture to determine risk factors. It even understands when you curl your toes in discomfort. AVATAR is currently being tested by the Canadian Border Services Agency and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and could prove to be the more acceptable future of behavioural profiling.

Risk and opportunity

These new security models present several opportunities for airports. Employees tasked with monitoring security images from CT scanners could do so remotely, and space could be better utilised for retail, generating increased revenue opportunities. Security is fundamentally about safety, but with 40% of passengers choosing their route based on the airport-transfer experience, optimising the process is a financial imperative for airports and airlines.

Yet for every opportunity presented by the relentless march of technology, there are several risks. According to our Transportation Risk Index, airport executives rank both a “failure of critical IT systems” and “increased security threat from cyber and data privacy breaches” in the top five risks they will face over the next decade.

Airports will need robust crisis management and business continuity plans to effectively respond to a network incident, as preparedness can greatly minimise the organisational impact of an attack or failure. Understanding the diversity of these threats and the operational consequences of network outages will be a key part of any airport’s enterprise risk management.

So what does the future hold for airport security? The ultimate goal is to achieve a seamless yet robust security system; one capable of efficiently scanning bags and passengers while enhancing the travel experience. As technology develops and regulation adapts, this will become a reality. Try to remember that next time you’re removing your shoes.


Simon R.C. Knechtli is Executive Director, Aerospace, for Willis Towers Watson. Simon joined the Aerospace division of Willis in June 2014 as a member of the Leadership Executive after 30 years in the aviation insurance broking industry. He has a keen focus on airlines in the Middle East, Africa and Europe with a more recent broader experience in Asia.

Sophie France is a graduate on the Willis Towers Watson development programme currently working within Aerospace. She has experience in account handling, claims and broking.

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