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Safety Considerations of a Commercial Airport


The September 11 attacks in the US brought mixed fortunes to the safety of the aviation industry because over the years, the world has witnessed increased aggression by terrorists and other criminals in launching airport attacks. Even though terrorism is a big threat to the safety of commercial airports, the scope of this paper transcends terrorist threats to include other aspects of safety in the operation of commercial airports. Some of these aspects include the building of residential and commercial buildings (in and around airports), runway incursions, runway excursions and bird strikes (among other natural disasters that may pose a risk to the safety of commercial airports). These are the existent security threats identified in most commercial airports around the world. Based on these security threats, this paper questions the usefulness of traditional safety considerations for commercial airports. Instead, this paper proposes new methods of improving the safety of commercial airports by recognizing the diversity of airport threats and the need for integrating human inputs into safety management systems. However, this paper recognizes the need to maintain traditional security measures but it also challenges the relevant authorities to improve such systems by incorporating new security measures that can deter present-day criminals. The realization of improved safety in our airports therefore warrants a renewed focus on how we perceive airport security threats.

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“Flying is the safest mode of transport” (Gladwell 2001, p. 53). This statement characterizes the airline safety perception among most travelers. From, this statement, undoubtedly, the level of safety in the transport industry is a crucial factor to consider while making the decision to determine which mode of transport to use. Though there is a common perception among many observers that airline transport is the safest form of transport, few people know the extremes that airline personnel have to undergo to ensure the industry remains safe (Wiener 1988, p. 433). However, many people are involved in ensuring that airline transport is safe. They include, flight engineers, pilots, airline manufacturing companies, commercial airline companies and air traffic organizations. These institutions are mandated to ensure the airline industry remains safe and newer methods of airline safety control are properly integrated into existing safety systems.

The commitment to ensure airline safety is normally evident in different aspects of airline traffic control including aircraft design, avionics, engine design, and system designs. However, airline safety is also extended to less-known aspects of safe operations such as airport designs, and dimensional standards (National Research Council 2007, p. 1). Safety is therefore an integral part of the operations in the airline sector and it may manifest in different forms, including “standard operating procedures, adoption of new technology and ensuring that safety is the driving force behind airport operations” (Parasuraman 1996, p. 91). The Airports Council International (ACI) believes that safety in the airline industry is not only defined by what the industry is but what is done (on a daily basis) to ensure air traffic safety (National Research Council 2007).

Since the aviation industry is a dynamic and multifaceted industry, many people ponder what airport security entails. Rome (2010) explains that, “airport security refers to the security and techniques used to protect airports and aircrafts from crime” (p. 73). Indeed, alongside seaports, railways and roads, airports witness large volumes of human traffic. Due to the sheer volumes of people within this transport terminus, airports remain a prime target for crimes such as terrorism. Furthermore, due to the high concentration of people within one aircraft, many terrorists perceive aircrafts to be a prime lethal weapon and target for their operations (Davies 1982). Indeed, the September 11 attack in the US is a prime example of how terrorists have targeted airports and aircrafts to launch their attacks. The world has witnessed other terrorist attacks such as the 1976 Cubana flight 455 which was shot down by terrorists (Marks 2010). This attack claimed 73 lives. Among other fatal attacks, which were caused by a lapse in airport security is the death of nearly 400 people which was realized after Air India (flight 182) was bombed by terrorists. The attack happened after airport officials failed to detect a bomb that was planted on the flight. The attack happened in 1985 (National Research Council 2007). The year 1994, also played host to another airport attack on Philippines Airlines (flight 434) that caused the death of one person after airport security detected the threat and foiled the attack before any more casualties were reported (National Research Council 2007). In 1972, three members of the Japanese Red Army launched an indiscriminate attack on civilians at an airport by firing at civilians and throwing grenades at innocent people (National Research Council 2007). The three assailants were later contained by airport officials (but after killing 24 people). Rome and Vienna airports also played host to similar attacks after unknown gunmen opened fire at innocent civilians on the airport terminus. The attack saw close to a dozen people dead (National Research Council 2007). In 2002, a similar attack was reported at a Los Angeles airport. The assault resulted in the death of two people (National Research Council 2007).

From the history of airport attacks, airport authorities have always been on high alert to avert any terrorist attacks. Such cautiousness has seen several airport attacks averted. For example, in 2006, British authorities detected a terrorist plot targeted at bombing aircrafts originating from the US and UK and averted the same (National Research Council 2007). This terrorist threat accounted for the first “red alert” in the US.

To many aviation authorities, airport security may amount to different things. However, to common people, airport security involves the provision of measures that protect people from grave harm. Across the globe, drug seizures and the trafficking of human beings has also been reported as a real threat to airport security (National Research Council 2007). In addition, the trafficking of illegal goods across airports is one such aspect of airport security that most people perceive to be important in airport security management. The perpetrators of such activities are often attracted to airports because of their accessibility to other countries. Airports are also targeted transit points for illegal goods such as ivory, and drugs. Smugglers are known to use airports for transmitting illegal goods across continents, thereby contravening international laws governing the same. These illegal goods may cause grave human harm if their trade is left to flourish. However, most importantly, if this trade is allowed to go on, it amounts to great airport security contravention. Aside from this fact, the biggest danger associated with illegal trade across airports is the fact that such illegal traders are often dangerous and they do not care about the wellbeing of other people (House of Commons 2010). Therefore, such criminals may pose a threat to the security of airport officials and by extension, the public.

Despite the surge in terrorist attacks and other forms of airports security violations, air traffic volumes are still set to increase in the coming decades. For instance, in the next two decades aircraft manufacturers estimate that air traffic is expected to grow by nearly 168% (House of Commons 2010). The growth in passenger numbers during the same period is estimated at 5%. Currently, the US department of homeland security estimates that about 730 million people use airport services every year and nearly the same number of people has their luggage checked for items that contravene airport security rules (annually) (House of Commons 2010). Airports are just a small part of the factors leading to an infringement of air traffic safety. For example, a recent survey by Burke (2008) shows that about 30% of all air traffic accidents involved an oversight of one aspect of airport safety. However, airports are complicated areas of operations because there are some factors in the airport environment, which may not necessarily be within the control of airport authorities. Such issues may include the weather, inadequate air safety guidance (and the likes). Therefore, many causal factors may cause a lapse in airport safety. Some researchers such as Burke (2008) estimate these causal factors to be more than 70 but the House of Commons (2010) groups these factors into seven categories including, lighting and marking, runways and taxiways issues, information issues, external hazards, apron and ramp issues, ATC operations and procedures issues, and aerodrome issues. The sheer size of airport related issues highlights the importance of all stakeholders in the maintenance of airport security to work together.

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Nonetheless, the main problem associated with the understanding of airport security is the lack of proper data collection and data synchrony among different airports in the world. For example, there is poor quality of information regarding which airport security problems originate from ground operations and which ones originate from maintenance operations. Within the same sphere of understanding, Burke (2008) explains that, “Within the accident information which is being collected, a general lack of attention to the organizational factors and corporate culture factors in data collection taxonomies is present which further impedes deeper insight” (p. 45). The poor focus of organizational structures and corporate cultures (as impediments to understanding airport security) has however not been witnessed in all parts of the world. There are some statistics, which show the main causes of airport security lapses such as recent reports by the European accident investigations, which highlight the different lapses in safety system information among various airport safety institutions as another barrier to understanding airport security (Harris 2002, p. 1). For example, the 1995 Daventry accident and the 1991 Edinburgh accidents were mainly attributed to poor maintenance and poor handling of ground operations (Harris 2002, p. 1).

Understanding the importance of airport safety in today’s multifunctional society is therefore gaining increased importance, especially with increased emphasis on non-traditional concerns such as environmental factors. For instance, there is reduced public tolerance to environmental effects of airport activities and third party casualties associated with poor air traffic controls (Harris 2002, p. 1). These new and emerging trends are further piling up more pressure to airport authority officials to maintain high safety standards through integrating new technology and coming up with innovative ways of tackling airport security issues (Rasmussen 1986). However, airport authorities are still expected to meet the growing capacity issues and environmental concerns associated with air traffic operations. From this growing complexity of operations, there is increased attention to the fact that safety is no longer perceived to be an objective in airport operations but rather a constraint (Harris 2002, p. 6). To complicate further the situation, new hazards are slowly emerging and the existing ones are becoming more difficult to manage (especially with the changing technology).

There is a growing emphasis on third party risk as another important factor in all airport safety considerations because airports attract huge volumes of human traffic and people who live close to these facilities suffers an involuntary risk of living next to airports. Even though there is a low probability of air traffic accidents occurring (like one in a million), the local risk level associated with air traffic disasters is significant. Concerning this observation, Price (2008) reports that, “The resulting annual probability of an accident at a typical large airport is therefore much greater than the small probability of being involved in an aircraft accident as a passenger” (p. 23). Furthermore, Price (2008) explains that air traffic accidents normally occur within the vicinity of the airports (during take-offs and landings).

Based on the above understanding, airports need to have strong safety measures to mitigate any risk of an accident. It is therefore important to uphold airport security to prevent the occurrence of airport attacks and uphold the high safety standards associated with industry. The effectiveness of guaranteeing high safety standards within our airports will therefore ensure that there is reduced crime, reduced terrorism and reduced instances of illegal trade within our borders. The importance of airport security can therefore not be underestimated because it serves different purposes including “protecting the airport and country from any threatening events, to reassure the traveling public that they are safe and to protect the country and their people” (House of Commons 2010, p, 3). The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration also emphasizes this point by asserting that, “The goal of aviation security is to prevent harm to aircraft, passengers, and crew, as well as support national security and counter-terrorism policy” (Burke 2008, p. 23).

This paper seeks to investigate the safety considerations for a commercial airport based on the current security threats that face modern airports today. To have a correct conceptualization of the research problem, this paper will be categorized into five sections. The literature review will be relied on to provide a proper model framework for analyzing the research problem. Here, the works of previous researchers will be evaluated to establish what other people have written regarding the research topic. The next section will be the research methodology, which will elaborate how the findings of the study were arrived at. This will be a thought out account of how the findings of the study were reached and why some of the research tools were used. The final section of this paper will be the conclusion section. This section will reinforce the findings of the study and open the outcomes to more scrutiny.

Literature Review

Safety considerations for a commercial airport have been analyzed from different angles. One aspect that has been evaluated by many researchers is the policy aspect of safety consideration for airport designs and operations (Harris 2002, p. 6). Different countries have different policies, but lately, most of these policies have been harmonized to international safety standards. Such standards have been developed by different organizations including the United Nation’s International Civil Aviation organization (ICAO) which was formed to regulate air traffic operations around the world (Harris 2002, p. 6). The formation of such organizations and policies started after the Second World War where airports started to report huge volumes of commercial air traffic. This period also characterized the evolution of aircrafts from small propeller driven machines to large aircrafts that can travel halfway around the world and carry more than 500 people in the same trip (Wittes 2009). Throughout this transition, air travel has not been as dangerous as other forms of transport. Partly, the main fact that has led to this observation is the formulation of common standards for aerodrome design. Wittes (2009) explains that, “Today’s ICAO Annex 14, dealing with Aerodrome Design and Operations, is a comprehensive document covering standards and recommended practices for aerodrome physical characteristics, obstacle restrictions, visual aids, electrical systems, aerodrome services and maintenance” (p. 33). From the above assertion, Wittes (2009) notes that policy provisions have ensured that different aspects of airport design are safe. Furthermore, most of these policy provisions are renewed annually to ensure they cover all aspects of airport safety (today).

The standards for operating procedures in different commercial airports around the world have also been harmonized to reduce the risk of accidents in airports. This is another safety measure identified by Harris (2002) as having contributed to increased safety standards in commercial airports today. In reference to this observation, Harris (2002) emphasizes that:

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“The introduction of standard operating procedures employed by airport operators, airlines, pilots, air traffic control organizations, as well as the companies that provide important services such as ground handling and re-fuelling, have played a very important role in airport safety” (p. 5).

Through the above assertion, there is a common agreement among all stakeholders that safety precautions are often added to an already safe system by improving the standard operating procedures in commercial airports. The effectiveness of these procedural operating standards cannot be underestimated because they cover most aspects of an airport’s operations, including airfield operations, all operations at the apron and all sensitive areas in airport safety such as gates and maintenance warehouses (Harris 2002, p. 8). For instance, most airports around the world have a provision for the maximum speed that a car should be driven on the apron and the stipulated distance for vehicles driving behind aircrafts with running engines. Similar provisions also define the rules for crossing taxiways. In fact, many airports have more stringent rules for any vehicle driving in the runways or any contact that is to be made with the control tower (Harris 2002, p. 8).

Similar rules and procedures also apply for airport personnel who control aircrafts. These rules are usually meant to safeguard the personnel and the aircrafts (Vicente 2004). For instance, all personnel are normally required to wear earmuffs and visible jackets when they are on the airfield so that they are visible to the pilots. Moreover, airport personnel are usually required to stand at a safe distance from the aircraft. These rules and procedures are normally inculcated into the safety culture of the aviation industry during the training period of new personnel.

Training is another safety aspect that has been identified by many researchers such as Filipczak (1996) because they highlight this aspect of air traffic control to be important in maintaining airport safety. Vicente (2004) purports that, it is vital for a safety culture to be engrained from the top management downwards, “including the notion of a just culture, whereby reporting of safety hazards and occurrences is encouraged, with the intention of learning from these events and discussing solutions, which leads to a continuous reduction in the rate of accidents” (Vicente 2004, p. 3).

Many organizations are involved in training airport personnel on the right safety standards to adopt. Most of these organizations vary in different countries. However, the Airport Council International (ACI) is very vibrant (internationally) in the training of airport personnel and imparting new knowledge on various aspects of airport safety. Such training normally occurs in short courses such as the ACI Global Safety Network Course (Swezey 1992, p. 219). Concerning such courses, Howell (1989) explains that, “Airport Staff can obtain the ACI Global Safety Network Diploma after the completion of the three modules on: safety management systems at aerodromes, airside safety and operations and emergency planning and crisis management” (p. 121). Training is therefore perceived to be a critical aspect of airport safety because poorly trained personnel are more prone to making security errors (which may turn out to be fatal).

Technology, systems and equipment are perceived to be tools that can greatly improve airports safety if properly used and improved. More importantly, the adoption of new technology in airport safety has greatly improved airport safety standards around the world. Different areas, influencing airport safety (such as new lighting systems, precision approach and landings systems, surface movement radar, visual docking guidance systems, and automated meteorological systems) have greatly benefitted from improved systems and equipment. These airport control fields are just a few areas that have benefitted from the improvement of systems and equipment.

The greatest advantage of using systems and equipment in maintaining airport safety is that they can be improved often. The use of modern safety systems and equipment in fire fighting and rescue missions is testament to the evolution of technology in improving airport safety (Swezey 1992, p. 219). Over the decades, other systems and equipment (used in emergency and evacuation situations) have also been improved using new systems and equipment. However, the entire notion of improving safety measures is to reduce the reliance on emergency and evacuation systems. Nonetheless, though this fact stands, it does not demean the importance of using modern equipment and systems in emergency services. Rough weather conditions that are known to worsen airport safety are also mitigated using modern systems and equipment in air traffic control. For example, advanced surface movement guidance and control systems have been widely adopted in many airports as an advanced tool to guide pilots during night landing and in times of rough weather (Swezey 1992, p. 219). These systems work the same way as traffic lights because they act as a clearance for landing. There are ongoing efforts in research and development to devise new safety measures to be engrained on the airport’s cockpit so that pilots can know their aircraft’s position on the airfield and where other vehicles or moving objects are located on the same platform. It is estimated that testing such systems will commence soon and such equipment should be available in the market sooner (Swezey 1992, p. 219).

Safety management systems have also been identified as important tools for the maintenance of a good safety environment in the airport. The safety management system is nothing more than a procedural and structural way of managing airport operations such as structures, accountabilities, policies, procedures and similar aspects of importance to airport operations. ICAO is normally known as the main oversight body for the implementation of safety management systems. It works by having a strong regard to local aviation regulations and international aviation regulations. For instance, since the year 2003, most airports around the world have been required to have a manual that stipulates how all equipment and procedures (used in the airport) work (Vicente 2004, p. 3). The safety management system has replaced an older type of safety precaution that relied on periodic audits to ensure airport safety procedures were upheld. In relation to the establishment of a safety management system, Vicente (2004) recommends that all airports should have a safety management committee that includes all stakeholders who control the operations of all airport departments (including the apron, taxiways and runways). Through the establishment of the safety management committee, airport accidents such as runway incursions can be prevented. Nonetheless, the establishment of a safety management system requires many safety assessments to be done within specific intervals of times. Within each safety assessment, a risk assessment is done to reduce or eliminate the possibility of an accident occurring. Aerodrome safety has been upheld in many airports in this way.

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There are certain structural designs that have been pointed out by Vicente (2004) to be important in the reduction of airport accidents and the improvement of airport safety. One such improvement is the establishment of fewer crossings on the runways. This can be done by changing the layout and design of the airport. The establishment of perimeter taxiways is also another strategy that can be used to improve airport safety, although many airports around the world find this strategy to lack feasibility because of a lack of space.

The provision of safety guidance materials has also been identified by some researchers such as Vicente (2004) as being vital to the improvement of airport safety. Concerning this identification, Vicente (2004) says that, “Industry guidance material has been produced on the elimination or reduction of major risks such as runway incursions, excursions and confusion” (p. 34). Currently, many issues are being reviewed as part of important air safety precautions. For instance, runway excursions are being reviewed for the risk of poor braking or aircrafts deviating from the runway due to poor weather. There are even more concerns currently being expressed about the presence of runway debris on the aircraft pathways which may potentially cause aircraft accidents during take-offs and landing. Some of this debris can cause severe mechanical malfunctions such as the presence of stone-sized objects, which may be sucked into aircraft engines (thereby causing mechanical failure). Similar objects may also be sucked into an aircrafts fuel tank, thereby blocking the fuel pathway. In Chicago, O’Hare airport has been identified to suffer such security risks because litter, rocks and unwanted materials are identified to characterize the airport’s environ (thereby posing a strong security threat to the aircrafts that land or take-off from the facility) (Airport International’s US Correspondent 2009, p. 1). Most of these litter and unwanted materials were left on the airport during the construction of the taxiways and the expansion of the runways. Referring to the runway debris at O’ hare airport, Airport International’s US Correspondent (2009) explains that:

“The construction materials were found lying on demarcated runway safety areas at the ends of the airport’s newest runway and this concerned the debris found on the runways themselves: these safety areas being used in the event of emergency aircraft take offs or landings” (p. 14).

At the same airport, there were other security threats on the runway, which emanated from the authorization to use airport facilities without properly training airport employees on the same (Guzzo 1988, p. 63). For example, some airport officials drove around undesignated areas of O’ Hare airport because they were not trained to properly use airport facilities.

Like runway excursions, runway incursions have also been identified as a real security threat to airport operations. A recent report detailing the risks of runway incursions and excursions have painted a grim picture on airport security by highlighting that passengers are often safer when they are airborne than when they are on the ground (Consumer Affairs 2009, p. 1). Partly, this security risk is attributed to runway incursions, which is identified by Consumer Affairs (2009) as “any incident involving an unauthorized aircraft, vehicle, or person on a runway” (p. 1). Over the years spanning the 2000s period, incidents of runway incursions have been on the rise. The year 2004 alone played host to a 38% increase in runway incursions in America (Consumer Affairs 2009, p. 1). Again, in 2008, more than 24 serious runway incursions were reported in the US. Some of these incidents were mere accidents brought about by poor weather while others were caused by negligence and other human errors (Reason 1990). In the US alone, several airports have been identified as bearing the greatest threats to runway incursions and excursions. These airports are located in “Baltimore; Boston; Charlotte, North Carolina; Chicago; Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia; Phoenix; San Francisco; and Washington, D.C” (Consumer Affairs 2009, p. 1). In 2005, an incident of airport incursion was reported at Chicago midway when an aircraft skid off the runway (due to bad weather), thereby causing four fatalities and 18 injuries. In California, another incident involving a jetliner flight which was trying to land at Bob Hope airport caused more than 44 injuries when it skid off the runway due to a lack of enough “safety zones” on the highway (Consumer Affairs 2009, p. 1). Due to such safety concerns, the FAA has listed more than 1000 airports in the US alone for not complying with the stipulated “safety zone” procedures. About a quarter of the listed cases are said to pose big threats to the safety of the passengers (Consumer Affairs 2009, p. 1).

However, concerning runway excursions and incursions as possible security threats, there are specific physical and training measures that have been taken to reduce such risks. Some countries are warming up to the challenges of such eventualities. For example, some nations are building longer runways (more than the recommended) to internally mitigate the risk posed by runway excursions. The establishment of an “arrestor bed” at the end of the runway is also another measure taken by airports to prevent runway excursions (Consumer Affairs 2009, p. 1). These risk mitigation measures are however done within the provision of ICAO regulations. Many airport authorities are further exploiting the possibility of mitigating other risks such as runway confusion and “wrong runway operations”.

However, the above measures are identified to (still) be insufficient at curbing all the possible threats to airport security. For example, there are other threats identified by Consumer Affairs (2009) concerning the location of certain international airports around wetlands and trees as another issue that greatly contravenes airport security because such environments attract animals and other living creatures to inhabit airport environs. Bird strikes are the greatest threat to airport security emanating from the close proximity of airports to wetlands, grasslands and forested lands. In fact, many airport officials facing this threat perceive the threat of bird strikes to be omnipresent. Airport threats of this nature have been reported in many parts of the world, with the most recent (and notable) airport security threat detected involving a flight take-off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 2009 (Consumer Affairs 2009, p. 1). Hundreds of geese, which were wandering on the runway, obstructed the flight take-off. However, there were no deaths reported (Consumer Affairs 2009, p. 1).

Many aviation authorities such as the US federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have stressed the importance of airport authorities to mitigate the risk of bird strikes because airfields should not have any form of floating debris around their vicinity (Wagner 2012, p. 1). Nonetheless, not many airports around the world comply with set regulations regarding the topography of airport environs. For instance, few airports comply with the provision that grasslands surrounding the airports should not be more than six inches long. In addition, fewer airports comply with the regulation requiring all paved surfaces around airports to be free from all forms of vegetation.

The development of residential homes around airports has also been identified as another issue contravening airport security in many parts of the world (McNeil 2010, p. 1). Growing human populations in major urban centers around the world has exacerbated this problem. This increase in population has consequently led to a surge in housing developments, which have created more pressure to use “idle” airport land. Some of these developments have been necessitated by the growing pressure among investors to build commercial centers around airports to take advantage of the immense business opportunities, which exists from airport services. Such establishments include hotels, restaurants, recreational facilities and the likes. Due to these factors, pilots have been forced to fly dangerously close to residential and commercial establishments built around airports.

The danger posed by the establishment of residential and commercial buildings next to airports is increased by the threat of airport crashes on such establishments. At Lancaster airport in the US, there is a growing concern among residents living adjacent to the airport concerning the establishment of flight schools, which train airports who are as young as 16 years (McNeil 2010, p. 1). Due to the inexperience of such pilots, many residents are expressing growing reservations regarding the increase in air traffic around the airport and the proliferation of flight schools around the airports as well. Even though there are many residents pushing for the control of airport expansion (and sometimes the relocation of airports away from residential facilities), most airport authorities are limited by the lack of adequate funds to relocate such facilities from their existing locations. Therefore, there is an eminent threat posed by the establishment of residential and commercial buildings around airport facilities. Wagner (2012) however perceives the solution to mitigating the risk of such security threats as simple because he identifies the need to uphold strict regulations governing the building of commercial and residential facilities around airports. He further explains that the failure for relevant authorities to enforce aviation rules governing the development of commercial and residential houses around airports has caused the security threat. Therefore, to prevent the further spread of this security threat, there needs to be strict enforcement of rules governing the development of commercial and residential buildings around airports. These rules provide for a “safe zone” in the development of such establishments.

Perceiving airport security from a different angle, McNeil (2010) explains that, airport security has greatly improved around the world (mostly in the developed world) after the September 11 attacks. For example, metal detectors and bomb sniffing dogs have been integrated as an important aspect of airport security. In light of this development, McNeil (2010) perceives airport security to be at an all-time high.

However, if a terrorist wants to cause havoc at an airport, other strategies may be used (besides the upgraded security measures). For example, one may drive through the airport fence into a sensitive area and hull a grenade at a plane or plant a bomb in an aircraft. Similarly, a terrorist may climb over a fence into a sensitive area of operation. Since there are many ways that airport safety may be contravened, McNeil (2010) proposes that it is very important to ensure the first line of defense is fully secure. The first line of defense usually includes different aspects of physical security measures such as ensuring there are guards around the perimeter fence of the airport wall/fence. Other measures may include putting barriers or fences around key installations of the airport such as fuel depots, terminals or baggage handling areas. It is usually recommended that tall fences should be built to deter people who want to infiltrate the airport. As an added security measure, the installation of security measures is also an important addition to airport safety measures. Certain physical barriers that may neutralize the threat of someone driving through a terminal entrance (and blowing up the airport) are easily deployable if a threat is detected. Loading zones are also often kept clear of traffic to avoid the possibility of someone planting a car bomb in such a critical airport facility (McNeil 2010).

Another level of security that McNeil (2010) perceived to be important in airport security is determining the identity of people who use the airport. Often, terrorists have posed as travelers and breached airport security in this manner. Normally, photo identity cards and other identification documents such as driver’s licenses are used to identify people who access airports. For international travel, people are normally required to produce their passports. However, due to the advancement in technology and the sophistication of airport threats, it has become more important to employ more sophisticated identification modes such as biometrics in identifying travelers. For instance, due to increased instances of impersonation, many airports deem it important to use biometrics. US Congress (2011) explains that,

“Biometrics essentially means checking fingerprints, retinal scans, and facial patterns using complex computer systems to determine if someone is who they say they are – or if they match a list of people the government has determined might be potential terrorists” (p. 1946).

Newer methods of identification are still in the making, with the computer-assisted passenger prescreening being one such new invention, which is expected to be launched soon (US Congress 2011). The establishment of a parallel police unit has also been integrated into the security systems of different airports as another important tool in airport security.

Airport security personnel normally operate independently from other departments and they carry background checks on different people who access the airport facility. More importantly, airport security personnel are mandated to ensure there is proper implementation of security laws and regulations in the airport. For instance, they ensure that the airport personnel operate within their security privileges. This duty is governed by the fact that certain airport personnel have lower security clearance while others have a higher security clearance. The role of airport security guards is therefore to ensure that all airport personnel operate within their security privileges.

Recent security requirements stipulate that all people accessing an airport should pass through a metal detector. This recent security measure has been applied in recent times to uphold airport security. US Congress (2011) perceives this security measure as an important addition to airport security because most devices used in airport attacks are metallic. Such devices may include bombs, firearms and the likes. All luggages are also required to pass through an x-ray machine that detects any dangerous items. The same procedure is done for cargo.

Since the establishment of physical safety measures is the first line of defense, air marshals are normally considered the last line of defense because they are mandated to neutralize attacks that have not been detected by all other safety measures. For example, if a terrorist manages to infiltrate the airport’s security mechanisms and is about to carry out his attack, air marshals are often called to contain the terrorist. Air marshals have existed for more than four decades now but their importance has never been emphasized like after the September 11 period (US Congress 2011). Air marshals usually blend with the airport population because they are not required to wear a uniform like other security personnel. Instead, they have civilian clothing and carry a weapon (Hertzberg 1968, p. 53). They are also allowed to make arrests if they perceive a passenger to be a “risky” person. However, air marshals are insufficient (numerically) and therefore, they are not present in all flights. Therefore, their activities are normally secretive.

However, McNeil (2010) proposes that we should see the big picture in airport security, as opposed to focusing on a few conventional areas of security maintenance. Concerning this view, he explains that airport security should not only be perceived from the view of scanning passengers and their luggage for dangerous items because airport security can be breached in several other ways such as infiltrating other departments that facilitate flight services. These departments may include catering, cleaning, ticketing, air traffic control and the likes. For instance, in 1985, hijackers used the cleaning department to stash grenades and weapons in the washrooms of flight 847 (TWA), thereby causing a reign of terror that lasted more than a fortnight (McNeil 2010). In such a case, regardless of the efficiency of passenger and luggage detection mechanisms, the attack would have still occurred.

McNeil (2010) notes that tightening one aspect of airport security prompts terrorists and criminals to rethink other aspects of airport security and take advantage of the loopholes that exist in such departments. However, synchronizing all aspects of airport security for all departments would greatly overburden airport capacity thereby disrupting the functions of other airport departments. Here, criminals would find it easier to launch attacks. In addition, establishing an overly tight airport security for all departments would make airport policy very rigid and cause severe malfunction of airport services. McNeil (2010) equates such a situation to the world war two era where France established a highly rigid eastern border with France which was easily infiltrated by German fighters. This type of rigid system has been equated to the September 2011 attacks where the hijackers used permissible weapons to take over targeted airplanes.

In light of the above observations, McNeil (2010) maintains that it is important to establish a flexible and effective airport security system. To support his observations, McNeil (2010) states that, a flexible security system would have to contain three outlined elements: “security teams of selected, cross-trained, motivated personnel performing appropriate tasks, with continuing measurement and feedback of their performance; a combination of equipment and systems that can be deployed promptly whenever they are needed and intelligence that can be availed to security agencies whenever there is a need to do so” (McNeil 2010, p. 34).


Research Design

The methodology for this study is mainly based on the qualitative research design. The qualitative research design will be used as a precursor to quantitative research design, which may form the basis for future studies aimed at determining the safety considerations of a modern airport. The usefulness of the qualitative research design will therefore be limited to getting a comprehensive conceptualization of the safety considerations of a modern airport (based on the backdrop of research studies done on the same topic). The use of the qualitative research design is also supported by the fact that this research methodology is flexible and supports the inclusion of professional and peer-reviewed information. Evidently, in this paper, information from different aviation authorities is highly relied on to develop a framework for the understanding of the research problem. The inclusion of such data is supported by the qualitative research design. The nature of the research topic is also too complex to be understood from one perspective and therefore the use of the qualitative research design will be able to expose the underlying dynamics of the research topic. The simplicity of undertaking the qualitative research design is also a huge attraction for this research because the heavy financial muscle that would allow for the inclusion of a complex research design does not back this research. More so, the research topic involves the understanding of safety issues on a global level and it would be difficult to obtain such information through physical research that may span different airports around the world. Furthermore, considering this paper focuses on the use of secondary research information as the main form of data collection, the dependence on population sample will not be as important as it is for quantitative research. Therefore, meaningful research can still be obtained with a small case study or a collection of relevant cases.

Data Collection

As mentioned in earlier sections of this paper, this study will use secondary research sources as the main data collection tool. In addition, as mentioned in earlier sections of this paper, current security threats facing present-day airports have not been properly investigated but more so, the evolving nature of today’s security threats have not been thoroughly researched. Furthermore, since the evolving threats facing today’s airport security are rarely addressed, the use of secondary research data provides a broader understanding of the research problem. Though secondary research is mainly classified into internal and external sources, this study will mainly rely on external sources of data because there is no specific organization that this research seeks to address.

The main types of secondary research data to be used in this paper will be journals and publications on aviation security. These research sources will be relied on because of their relevance to the research topic and their high credibility and validity (Rachels, 1986, p. 56). Furthermore, the reliance on aviation journals and related studies will strive to ensure the findings of the study remain within the confines of the aviation safety field because the research problem is equally on aviation safety. Books will also be relied as reliable sources of research information because they contain published texts. Their level of reliability and validity are also assumed to match to journals and aviation publications. Finally, this paper will source information from online sources of research as the last type of secondary research data. The main advantage associated with this data collection tool is its easy availability. However, emphasis will be made to source data from reliable online sources such as aviation safety sites.

The above research sources will provide the groundwork for a meta-analysis, which will combine the findings from the three sources of secondary data to form the framework for the research findings. Therefore, the true “effect size” of the data collected from the secondary research sources will be estimated by the meta-analysis. Comprehensively, we will be able to come up with a systematic review of the research problem by eliminating the less-precise effects size of the research information collected from the secondary research sources.

There are several advantages to be realized from the above meta-analysis. For instance, it would be easy to establish the diversity of the researches obtained from the different types of information sources highlighted in the secondary research information. This diversity is likely to be realized from the inclusion of diverse research groups in the secondary research studies. Through the meta-analysis, it is equally easy to derive the statistical testing for all the factors involved in the progress of the researches highlighted in the secondary research sources. Though the concept of generalizing findings may be highlighted as a limitation for this study, the meta-analysis helps to generalize the findings of this research to different but related contexts.

Data Analysis

The data analysis section will use four tools. These tools will mainly be used because of the reliance on secondary data as the main form of data collection tool. The interpretive technique is the first type of data analysis tool used in this study. The interpretive technique will be adopted within the framework of observer impression because the secondary data collected will be analyzed from an analytical and professional view to come up with a structured impression of the study’s findings. By extension, this data analysis tool will include the input of experts and professionals in analyzing the data collected. An analytical eye will also be included to sort pertinent issues regarding the research problem and eliminate any information that may not be of use when answering the research problem or meeting the objectives of the study.

The second data analysis tool to be used will be the coding technique. The coding technique shares many similarities with the other data analysis tools used in this study because it is mainly interpretive (Rachels, 1986). Mainly, the coding technique will be used to organize the huge volumes of research data collected. The data will be analyzed and segmented into different groups, which are identified by unique codes. These codes are usually words that show the link between the information obtained and the research objectives. The different research contents represented by the unique codes will thereafter be compared to one another to expose their similarities and differences. Advanced coding techniques use integrated computer software such as the Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software which does little to supplement the interpretative nature of the exercise but improves the efficiency of the process altogether. The increased efficiency of the integrated computer software also allows for work sharing, peer-review, and easy examination of the information obtained (Rachels, 1986).

To establish the validity of the research information obtained, the member check technique will be adopted. This technique will not only be used to check the validity of the research information obtained because it will also evaluate the accuracy, credibility and transferability of the research information obtained. The member check technique works by submitting the research findings to the sources or sample sources. In this study, the research information will be compared to the existing pool of research sources and any distinctions checked to report on the accuracy or validity of the findings. Highly accurate and valid research information should reflect the views, feelings and experiences of the authors who developed the previous research (which is relied on in the study). However, this is not to mean that the findings of this paper will reproduce information from other studies because it will go beyond that to conceptualize the research problem form a holistic perspective, and provide a framework for future studies by carrying out a meta-analysis of existing research. Though member checking is done during the course of the research process, this paper undertakes the same procedure at the end of the research.

Findings and Conclusion

Many researchers have attributed different causes for reduced security in most airports around the world. However, there is a common consensus among many researchers that some of the problems contributing to increased airport security breaches include institutional and organizational failures. Harris (2001) purports that under the institutional framework; there is a lapse in the policy structures. For example, he describes the ICAO standards as the main body of rules and policies that govern the operations of most European airports. Nonetheless, he identifies the lack of licensing for most European airports (because they are state-owned) as major area of security weakness because it hinders the possibility of implementing strict regulatory oversight on such airports.

There is a great advantage to adopting common security policies such as ICAO standards because several aspects of airport operations are outlined here. For example, all the equipment and infrastructure required in commercial airports are described under ICAO standards. National authorities are normally mandated to ensure the safety requirements associated with airport infrastructure and equipment are observed but having a regional set of safety policy ensures that there is a stricter stipulation of how safety management should be done. Many countries around the world are quickly warming up to the prospects of having a harmonized airport safety policy. For example, the UK, Netherlands and some Nordic countries are contemplating having their airport safety policies harmonized (Harris 2001).

As mentioned in earlier sections of this study, many researchers agree that airport safety is slowly losing its credibility because of institutional and organizational lapses. On the organizational front, it is crucial to highlight that airports operate through the functions of different organizational departments. These organizational departments may include, “Aircraft maintenance, flight operations, ground handling including fuelling, security services, airside services and air traffic control” (Harris 2001, p. 54). These departments normally have different standards of operation and practices. Even though this diversity exists, it is important to highlight that the deep disintegration of safety practices and procedures has a detrimental effect on airport safety. The main challenge associated with this problem is the fact that it is often difficult to attain a common safety platform because most organizational heads are subject to different regimes. This problem persists despite the fact that some of these airport functions may be done by a common organization. This is because these organizations subscribe to different managements, and safety cultures.

However, since the emergence airport security breaches, most airports have resorted to adopt intensive security measures to detect security threats. However, over the decades, most airports have only maintained traditional security threat detectors such as metal detectors. Most airports are still stuck on inspecting passenger luggage in the hope of preventing the smuggling of weapons into aircrafts. Mackie (1987) emphasizes that:

“Human operators continue to play a key role in the detection process by examining X-ray images, resolving metal detector alarms, conducting body scans with metal detection wands, conducting physical searches of baggage, and maintaining order at screening checkpoints” (p. 707).

From the findings of this paper, we have also seen that there is a strong emphasis on empowering airport security officials through better training and labor adequacy. In fact, there is a global push among most countries in the developed world to increase the pay of airport security officials to boost their morale and improve their efficiency in airport security detection (McNeil 2010). However, little time has been given to evaluate the shortcomings of current security management systems. It is believed that providing better salaries and wages to screeners will attract better workers in airport security management (Jette 1985, p. 275). Conventional literature shows the link between better pay and improved worker performance but the relationship between the two variables is not direct. This observation is factual because airport security depends on many other factors apart from better pay. Issues such as, “job design, performance measurement and feedback, and the match between operator aptitudes and tasks” (Harris 1969, p. 65) are also great determinants of worker outcomes. Therefore, in understanding airport security, the factors that lead to improved worker outcomes are two-fold: there are factors that attract workers to the job and there are factors that improve worker performance on the job. Improved pay is only one factor that may lead to improved worker performance (Harris 2001, p. 507).

From the above analysis, it is therefore important to improve other aspects of job performance such as job design. In addition, identifying specific specialists in airport security and allocating them duties that fit their skills and competencies is also another strategy of improving worker performance. More importantly, during the recruitment process, it is important to match the skills of the workers with the requirements of the job (Ilgen 1988, p. 143). Here, it is important to hire only qualified staff because incompetent airport security personnel can greatly compromise airport security. Similarly, it is important to provide opportunities for career growth so that employees can acquire new knowledge and develop new skills.

Performance measurement and feedback is also another crucial aspect of improving airport security because it is equally important in improving the efficiency of most human activities. For instance, if there were no scores or points allocated in sports, there would be very little motivation for sportsmen and players to improve their skills. Similarly, the importance of measuring performance and providing feedback is therefore an important aspect of airport security because it improves human capabilities (Lawler 1981). The military is one such institution that has appreciated the importance of performance measurement and feedback because in its absence there is a high likelihood of experiencing high employee turnover and reduced employee performance. Concerning this observation, Lawler (1971) explains that:

“Operators cannot be expected to maintain high levels of detection performance day after day, month after month without consistent, regular, realistic, accurate measurement and feedback of their performance. Yet, the systematic measurement and feedback of operator performance has been missing from threat detection jobs at airports throughout the entire history of airport security” (p. 51).

Performance measurement and feedback can greatly improve airport security because it can diagnose airport weaknesses. Upon the identification of these weaknesses, it is easier to tailor the training program to address these shortcomings. Performance measurement and feedback can also be used to evaluate the impact of new technology on airport security management systems. Furthermore, improved performance measurement and feedback can easily “provide a good criterion for validating operator selection and job assignment techniques” (Harris 2001, p. 507).

Clearly, from the findings of this paper, there is a lot of emotional rhetoric that characterizes the formulation of airport security policies but at the same time; most researchers show that there is a strong hesitation among most airport officials to divert from conventional wisdom of airport security. In addition, because of the nature of most terrorist attacks and airport security breaches in today’s society, there are special interests that characterize the formulation of airport security policies. Despite the fact that the above security measures have deterred criminals and terrorists from carrying out attacks on airport facilities, the increasing threat of airport security and the sophisticated creativity of criminals, warrant the formulation of advanced security measures.

Due to the consistent reference of the war against terror as an eminent threat to airport security, the September 11 attack was a game-changer in airport security because it questioned the effectiveness or purpose of traditional security measures. Many researchers imply that the attacks did not occur because of a failure of existing security measures since no passenger carried any unauthorized goods or items on the aircraft. Instead, the researchers show that the attacks happened because of a change of tact by criminals and terrorists, which conventional security measures cannot detect. The occurrence of the September 11 attacks question the importance of subjecting many travelers to vigorous security scanning because it is evident that criminals can still use other strategies to launch attacks. Furthermore, the vigorous security measures currently implemented in many airports seem to contravene the privacy of travelers (with some security equipment having the capability to strip down virtually unsuspecting people). Due to the shortcomings of existing security measures, there is a strong need to adopt more dynamic security measures to mitigate airport security threats.

This background highlights the importance of passenger profiling as an effective way of detecting present-day security threats. There is no need of spending many resources to train airport officials regarding outdated airport security threats while criminals have change tact and are using intelligent ways of breaching airport security. It is important for the concerned authorities to be ahead of the criminals in devising ways of neutralizing airport security threats as opposed to coming up with new ways of preventing airport security breaches after they have already occurred. Although law enforcers may have a difficult time trying to profile travelers, it is the only effective way that our airports can be made safe. To support this strategy, it is important for airport security officials to have a records department that keeps information regarding suspected travelers. This way, airport officials can subject such individuals to intense security scrutiny (when they travel) as opposed to subjecting everybody to the intense security screenings seen today (National Research Council 1996). This is one way of including human security screenings to the security management systems because history shows that technological security measures have been ineffective if they work alone (Harris 2001, p. 507). It is therefore important to merge human elements of airport security detection and technological elements of the same.

There is even a greater importance of ensuring that all security measures established in airports are focused. This is true because unfocused airport security measures tend to have a lower level of efficacy. For instance, in America, frequent flyers are often subjected to rigorous security checks by examining their luggage after every flight. However, most airport officials fail to notice that some of these travelers have more than one flight a day but they are still required to go through the same security checks every time they board an aircraft. A case is given by Harris (2001) of a traveler who boarded two large aircrafts from Atlanta to Detroit and posed no threat on any of these flights but before boarding a third flight (for the day); the passenger was subjected to rigorous security checks. Here, it is obvious to point out the fact that the passenger boarded two large aircrafts earlier in the day and posed no threat. There is therefore no reason to subject such a passenger to more vigorous security checks before boarding a third aircraft because it would strain the country’s airport resources unnecessarily if the same procedure was done on thousands of more travelers. Here, it is crucial to highlight the importance of passenger profiling because such a customer is definitely of a lower threat to airport security.

The above case highlights the unfocused nature of airport security in today’s airports. However, the same situation fails to highlight the details of airport searches that are often uncoordinated and unfocused. Often, airport authorities spend a lot of time searching through all the items in a passenger’s luggage like disassembling a pen, flexing a rubber or riffling through a mini flashlight. Even though these security procedures are important, they may overlook other items that may pose the strongest threat such as the bag itself. It is a smart move to focus airport security measures on areas of high risk rather than broadening airport security searches. There is even a stronger need of making airport security policies more flexible to accommodate the variables of different security situations. However, the above statement does not imply that airport security needs to be relaxed; it only highlights the importance of making airport security smarter and more focused. For instance, there is a strong need to rely on security intelligence while undertaken airport searches rather than adopting a “blanket” policy on all security procedures. Concerning this statement, Harris (2001) explains that, “To this end, channels of information and coordination must be established between airport security systems and the intelligence-gathering and -analysis activities of national and local law enforcement agencies” (p. 503).

Other security parameters can be adopted as smart and focused ways of improving airport security such as “the Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS)” (Harris 2001, p. 507). Based on about 40 parameters, CAPPS can correctly evaluate a passenger’s risk level by incorporating different dynamics of a passenger’s profile such as credit history or travel companions. Current security equipment which are perceived to be too rigorous and thorough can be used on high risk passengers as opposed to all passengers. Such a strategy can be used to minimize the criticisms directed at airport officials for adopting very rigorous and time-consuming safety checks. Furthermore, if authorities profile a certain passenger as “highly risky”, they can use personal interrogation approaches to further probe the passenger as opposed to relying purely on technology. This strategy can deter many security threats on most airports around the world. McNeil (2010) explains that the September 11 attacks was one such event where there was enough intelligence on security breaches but there was not much to be done because it was difficult to apply intelligence information to the existent security apparatus.

From the above understanding, there is a clear need to have a workable disaster management plan that is not only designed to neutralize terrorist attacks but also mitigate the effects of other types of accidents that may occur within or around the airport. Synchronizing the activities of local and airport emergency services may be a workable strategy that forms the framework for disaster management plans. This measure is not a new area of disaster preparedness in the aviation industry because many institutions require strict adherence to policies governing accident simulation and exercises. Such bodies include ICAO. However, based on the findings of this study, we see a poor focus on the potential accidents that may happen outside the airport premises. Based on the occurrences of recent accidents in an around airports, there is a strong need to manage the effects of accident disasters for survivors, relatives and airport employees. Different countries have different policies regarding the management of airline disasters. For example, the US aviation authority requires all airline companies to set aside a few resources to manage the aftermath of airline disasters. Concerned airport officials should consider adopting similar legislations in their countries. There is a strong advantage of instituting disaster management plans because it will highlight the importance of merging local and airport emergency services. Certain emergency provisions such as the provision of good access roads to disaster sites will therefore be upheld. Recent airport disasters have also highlighted the need of debriefing all relevant stakeholders in the event of a disaster. Developing a disaster management plan will ensure that the methodology for undertaking such an important procedure (debriefing) is in place.

From the findings of this paper, we can also establish that most airport functions are highly uncoordinated because they are run from different organizations within the same facility. From this understanding, there is a strong need to establish a common high safety standard for airport functions but it is equally important to highlight the fact that one actor cannot formulate such a safety standard. There is therefore a strong need to integrate a safety management system that includes the input of all players in the functioning of airport activities. However, this is not a new development in the aviation industry because certain airports such as the Amsterdam Schipol airport have managed to formulate a common framework for safety management (integrated safety management system). To elaborate the workings of this system, McNeil (2010) elaborates that, “In this system, the airport itself, the main airlines, a representative of all other airline operators, ground handling providers, refueling services, and the air traffic control organization work together to improve safety” (p. 56). In such an operating environment, all organizations working in the airport have common terms of reference for airport safety. Furthermore, all relevant organizations are integrated into the airport safety management system where different safety inputs are integrated into one database. Frequent and regular meetings among all organizational heads, which chart a common objective for all departments, further complement these activities. This platform easily identifies the main pitfalls in airport security, thereby identifying safety bottlenecks that lead to the prevention of airport accidents/ attacks. The success of Amsterdam airport in implementing such an integrated safety platform should be replicated to other commercial airports around the world.

Alongside the need to have, a common framework for risk management is the need to have a common methodology for risk assessment. Having a common methodology for risk assessment does not undermine the spirit of competition because it levels the playing field for different airlines by providing a common framework for the evaluation of new technological tools of safety. Existing systems only provide a common framework for assessing airworthiness but fail to provide a good framework for assessing advanced safety procedures and new technological tools for airline safety. In fact, many airports around the world do not have a common framework for evaluating human operator performance or their associated procedural performance. Although such initiatives are slowly being adopted by aviation organizations such as the European Air Traffic Control Harmonization and Integration Programme (EATCHIP) such initiatives should receive, more support if airport safety is to be truly realized.

Another area in airport security that equally needs attention is the management of risks for third parties. It is known that airport facilities are slowly being overstretched by the increased airport traffic in many countries around the world. Most airports have responded by increasing their capacity through the acquisition of new land for the development of new infrastructure. This expansion has led to changes in routes traffic (and similar changes of airports services). From an analysis of the findings of this study, we have established that such expansionary ventures have an implicit environmental and third party costs. From this understanding, there is a strong need to include environmental impact assessments and third party risk evaluation when undertaking infrastructure expansion. Again, this recommendation is not new to the aviation industry because recent years have seen an improvement in the calculation and assessment of third party risks. Usually, such environmental and third party impact assessments have a strong political cost that is often associated with many other types of infrastructure expansions. It is important to secure the wellbeing of the citizens but also to uphold competition among airports through the establishment of a common framework for managing third party risks. It is also important to formulate legislation that governs non-traditional aspects of airport security such as the use of adjacent airport land and auxiliary regulations governing noise around airports. In this regard, “the establishment of risk tolerability criteria for land use planning purposes as well as common risk assessment methodologies should be pursued” (McNeil 2010, p. 56).

Finally, from the findings of this paper, clearly, several policy areas require further research. These policy areas are impeded by a lack of adequate knowledge in the respective areas of study. To bridge the existing knowledge gaps in these respective areas of study, there is a strong need to undertake further research on some specific aspects of airport security, which may be of importance to future policy development in airport security. One such area of policy research is third party risk assessment. Another important security aspect that needs further consideration is the development of a model to integrate human operator inputs into existing security management systems. Similarly, there is a strong need to investigate further the impact of new technology on airport security systems as well as how such equipments will work in a multi-organizational environment.

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