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Airport Security and the Reduction of Skills in Security Staff

The development of security measures in airports has been largely a response to various terrorists’ efforts targeting planes and passengers in the past 70 years. The 1960s saw over 130 hijackings of commercial airline planes, the most prolific one of which had been the one performed by Antulio Ramirez Ortiz in 1961 (John 1991). Since then, however, the pattern of terrorist activities shifted from hijacking to taking of hostages, use of weapons, construction of IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and using planes themselves as bombs, as shown by the terrorist attack by Al-Qaeda on the Twin Towers, launched on the 9th of September, 2001 (Skorupski & Uchroński 2018).

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Modern-day security measures include a variety of scans and checks, including pat-downs, X-ray scanning of belongings, and behavioral analysis methods. Novel approaches currently being tested include facial scans seeking to find signs of hostile intent in people (Skorupski & Uchroński 2018). With the increased reliance on technology, airport personnel is trained to operate and perform maintenance on it, neglecting behavioral analysis and other social forms of security, resulting in reduced skills in such. The purpose of this paper is to analyze whether overreliance on security scanners is beneficial or harmful to the overall safety of airport travel.

Current Technologies in Use in Airline Security

The three types of security technologies currently in use in various airports around the world could be classified into the following groups:

Luggage scanners. These scanners are utilized to detect various materials based on their density. They can differentiate plastic and paper from metal and glass. In addition, they can tell the difference in various powders, identifying talc from TNT and plasticine from C4 explosives (Mason & MacMahon 2019). They accomplish such by sending X-ray waves of different lengths through the baggage in order to identify different elements. The computer does most of the analysis, using wavelengths interchangeably in order to identify all objects of interest (Mason & MacMahon 2019). Human operators observe the results of the scan on screens and make the decision to allow luggage to pass or open it up for additional inspection.

Body scanners. These usually appear as either doorways or isolated boxes, through which the passenger has to walk through in order to show they carry no weapons or otherwise suspicious objects on their bodies (Mason & MacMahon 2019). The doorway scanners are typically radio wave-based and serve to detect metal objects on a person’s body, letting out a beeping noise whenever such is spotted. Isolated boxes typically use weak x-ray waves to detect the objects carried in a person’s pockets or worn on their bodies. These waves are too weak to see through an individual’s body, as such would require a medical-grade X-ray scanner, which is potentially dangerous both to the passenger, the operators, and those in close proximity (Mason & MacMahon 2019).

Cameras. The most standard of security measures present in every airport. Their purpose is to observe individuals after they entered the territory of the facility and ensure they do not prepare any illegal activities or commit criminal acts. While cameras do not directly prevent crimes from happening, they create an appearance of surveillance, preventing individuals from attempting infractions due to being seen. Finally, cameras enable the security personnel to quickly locate areas of infractions and direct interventions, as well as recognize faces of known terrorists and criminals, had they somehow passed through the initial checkpoints.

Emotion analysis technology. This type of novel technology is currently being tested in high-risk countries, such as Israel. It utilizes advanced facial-recognition programs in order to identify signs of aggression and ill intent in response to specific sets of visual and audial stimuli individuals are being exposed to in the scope of a security check (Knol et al. 2019). Some of the parameters analyzed by these programs include facial muscle activity, eye motions, changes in stature, heartbeat rate, and various others.

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It is possible to see, the state of current surveillance over the passengers is quite complete, enabling airport security personnel to not only scan new entrants for potentially harmful substances but also potentially detect malicious intent either before or during the act.

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Technology-Based Approach to Airport Security

The primary benefit to various scanners, cameras, and check-outs is that they significantly increase the requirements for insurgents to successfully conduct a terrorist operation (Skorupski & Uchroński 2018). Without scanners, a terrorist can easily bring a bomb onboard a plane and cause a detonation, resulting in a significant loss of life and broad political implications across the world. The explosion of such device mid-air would ensure that virtually all passengers and crewmembers would perish either as a result of the explosion, or the collision with the ground. The presence of redundant security measures forces terrorists to put significant efforts into infiltrating airports, either by putting a greater degree of engineering into their IEDs or significantly reducing their sizes, thus reducing the explosive potential of such (Skorupski & Uchroński 2018). Not all insurgent groups possess such an acumen in preparation, training, and execution, effectively leaving the method only to well-equipped and funded terrorist groups.

The second benefit is the prevention of conventional weapons from being brought on board. Without weapons, it was made possible for flight personnel to apprehend hijackers by overrunning and overpowering them. Such measures significantly reduced the number of hijacking attempts ever since 2001 (Skorupski & Uchroński 2018). The only successful or semi-successful attempts in doing so have been committed under the pretense by the assailant to be in possession of a bomb, such as the hijacking of Turkish Airlines Flight 1476 in 2006, and EgyptAir flight MS181 in 2016 (Skorupski & Uchroński 2018). In both cases, there were no bombs, and the assailants surrendered to the authorities shortly after landing.

The weaknesses of the existing technology stem from the fact that there are many loopholes that could be used by potential terrorists to get around them. At the same time, the belief in their infallibility lulls the security forces into a sense of complacency and false security (Skorupski & Uchroński 2018). It allows well-prepared criminals to pass through detectors without any problems, increasing their chances of success past a certain point. As demonstrated by the failed IED bombing in Saudi Arabia, which featured printer cartridges being converted into bombs, it is possible to target not only the passenger quarters but also the cargo hold, which undergoes much fewer security measures. In addition, it is possible for terrorists to utilize organic bombs, sowing explosives into their bodies or carrying them in stomachs, where they would be undetected by traditional means of technological surveillance. Emotion-analysis technology is in its testing stages, and it is not infallible. It may confuse general discontent or anger for malicious intent, resulting in numerous false alarms that could potentially paralyze airports for hours and breed panic and suspicion.

Behavioral Methods of Security

Behavioral methods of security are typically used in places where technology is either in short supply or unavailable. It includes physical investigations of passengers and observing their reactions to certain actions, questions, or even the presence of a security officer in their immediate vicinity (Kirschenbaum & Rapaport 2017). It also involves being able to spot inconsistencies and lies based either on wordplay or body language. It is a complex method that requires training and special face-to-face practice. Nevertheless, when properly applied, it is considered very efficient, as shown in the Israeli airport of Ben Gurion, where all officers are trained in spotting suspicious behavior as well as signs of fright and hostility (Petrov 2017). Nevertheless, behavioral methods remain a controversial topic in airport security for several reasons. These are as follows (Kirschenbaum & Rapaport 2017):

Heterogeneity of results. Various studies on the effectiveness of behavioral methods do not offer a decisive conclusion on their effectiveness. The human factor of the guards, the terrorists, and various other determinants are at play, making it impossible to make a correlation between certain methods and successfulness of identifying intent.

The propensity to bias. Individuals perceive others based on a plethora of personal experiences, which differ significantly from one guard to another. Even with training, they may perceive people differently based on appearances, gender, or racial makeup.

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Training time and expenditures. In order to properly train a guard in professionally utilizing behavioral methods of detection and security, it requires significant amounts of time, including one-on-one practice, as well as competent specialists to do so.

As it is possible to see, behavioral methods are viable, but their effectiveness is heavily reliant on the capacity of the guard to read people, making it an inconsistent method of security at best.


The massive overreliance on technological methods of detection over behavioral ones has been prevalent in the past several decades for a variety of reasons. One of them is the undeniable benefits of airport security. Scanners allow looking into bags and under outfits without having to touch the person or open up their bags, which significantly increased the speed of processing, which is a crucial element of any modern air service (Ghelfi-Waechter et al. 2017). Passengers cannot wait for hours to be investigated manually. Nevertheless, technological measures implemented at the airports are well-known to terrorists, allowing them to plan countermeasures against such defenses.

The lack of training in behavioral methods among security personnel in airports is explained by several factors. First, the turnover rates among airport personnel are very high, reaching up to 25% per year (Ghelfi-Waechter et al. 2017). Second, technology training takes up the majority of practice and preparation time. Third, the cost-effectiveness of behavioral methods is suspect. While the Israelis are successfully using them in their airports (Petrov 2017), it is unclear whether such results are achieved by the quality of training or by the quality of personnel, or both.

The heterogeneity of results is demonstrated by the hijacking spree of the 1960s when in the spree of 10 years, there were over 150 hijackings of commercial planes (John 1991). Back then, due to inefficiencies in security technology, behavioral methods were the primary means of spotting suspicious behavior and preventing acts of violence and terrorism. Nevertheless, they failed, despite the amount of air traffic being substantially smaller than it is today.

Finally, there is the issue of behavioral methods and profiling being used as a means of discrimination against certain groups of people. In the US, the individuals most susceptible to being stopped and searched are blacks, Arabs, and Hispanics (Ghelfi-Waechter et al. 2017). Statistics indicate a greater percentage of crimes and terrorist acts being committed by these population groups. Nevertheless, these arguments are not made against the practice altogether, but to explain why airports, being faced with the restrictions and issues they currently have, train their employees in using technology rather than trusting their instinct and perceptions, in order to serve as the primary method of security and protection (Ghelfi-Waechter et al. 2017). Computer-based technology of detecting malicious intent might be able to reduce the amount of bias expressed by officers implementing behavioral methods, but opens up a different set of issues associated with thought policing and privacy concerns.


Airports implement a wide variety of technological measures as their primary means of security, over the behavioral ones utilized in the second half of the 20th century. These measures managed to eliminate the chances of individuals sneaking conventional weapons as well as the majority of the explosive ordinance on board passenger planes. At the same time, they are forcing terrorists and other extremists to plan accordingly to bypass these measures. Although there are means of overcoming security, the number of plane bombings has been in decline since 2001, indicating that technology does work. As a side-effect of having to operate all of these devices, security guards tend to rely on them extensively. However, that reliance is warranted, as, on average, said the technology offers better results than the behavioral guessing game. Once the technology capable of spotting hostile intent is perfected, the need for behavioral training will become tertiary. Nevertheless, the human must always be in charge to make the final decision.

Reference List

Ghelfi-Waechter, S. M., Bearth, A., Fumagalli, C. S., & Hofer, F. (2019) ‘Towards unpredictability in airport security’, Journal of Airport Management, 13(2), pp. 110-121.

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John, P. S. (1991) Air piracy, airport security, and international terrorism: Winning the war against hijackers. New York, NY, Quorum Books.

Kirschenbaum, A. A., & Rapaport, C. (2017) ‘Does training improve security decisions? A case study of airports’, Security Journal, 30(1), pp. 184-198.

Knol, A., Sharpanskykh, A., & Janssen, S. (2019) ‘Analyzing airport security checkpoint performance using cognitive agent models’, Journal of Air Transport Management, 75, pp. 39-50.

Mason, L. S. W., & MacMahon, V. P. B. (2019) ‘Taxonomy of interactions and the design of the airport passenger screening process’, Design Discourse on Business and Industry, 5, p. 127.

Petrov, A. (2017) ‘Engineering of security measures at Ben Gurion International Airport’, Serbian Journal of Engineering Management, 2(2), pp. 27-36.

Skorupski, J., & Uchroński, P. (2018) ‘Evaluation of the effectiveness of an airport passenger and baggage security screening system’, Journal of Air Transport Management, 66, pp. 53-64.

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