Aviation Security and Covid-19

Aug 12, 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic of 2020 has wrought havoc on the aviation industry. Many countries completely stopping passenger traffic or severely limiting passenger traffic to mostly domestic flights and essential travel, while others such as Qatar have maintained passenger traffic for transfer passengers throughout the pandemic.

Qatar airliner in flight. (photo: Carlos Pernalete Tua)

As passenger traffic slowly resumes as we head into the fall of 2020, there will be major changes to how the airport environment works, specifically to aviation security.

Aviation security goes beyond what the passenger sees during their journey, specifically the passenger screening check point at the airport. This article looks at the passenger screening experience and how it will evolve in the post-COVID environment.

Guidance Material / Industry Position

Considering the myriad travel restrictions in place around the world, recommendations and guidance material for the restart of the aviation sector are being developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) along with industry trade associations, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and the Airports Council International (ACI). These guidelines have been developed so that state authorities, airlines and airports can maintain a consistent approach to addressing air travel in the COVID-19 period.

A consistent approach and uniform screening system is critical for aviation security and will provide a level playing field internationally.

The work of ICAO’s Council Aviation Recovery Task Force (CART) is aimed at providing practical, aligned guidance to governments and industry operators in order to restart the international air transport sector and recover from the impacts of COVID-19 on a coordinated global basis. The CART’s Recovery Report and the accompanying ‘Take-Off’ Guidance for International Aviation was issued in June 2020.

The “Take-Off” guidance is an authoritative and comprehensive framework of risk-based temporary measures, including screening, for air transport operations during the COVID-19 crisis. These guidelines are fully supported by the IATA.

Airport Departure Counters. (photo: Anna Shvets)

Challenges for Passenger Screening

The area of aviation security that is most visible to the public is passenger screening. In the COVID-19 environment, this area is going to the most challenging to implement. Concerns with social distancing in the security queue and during the screening process are at the forefront, on the minds of passengers and security personnel alike. Several biosecurity or health checks will be implemented at the security screening checkpoint.

The “Take-Off” section on passenger security screening states that measures to control access to the security screening checkpoint may need to be considered, as well as possible modifications to standard screening, in order to comply with new COVID-19 sanitary guidelines. However, there is substantial concern among aviation stakeholders that requiring security personnel to conduct health screening will take attention away from the primary duty of screening for threats to civil aviation.

Aviation associations such as Airports Council International (ASI) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) urge that security screening personnel remain focused on security screening and related processes and not be additionally tasked with health- and safety-related screening. Unfortunately, this dual process has been considered in some countries.

The first challenge will be queue management. Ensuring that passengers are appropriately physically or socially distancing from each other will require more space in the airport. This may not be a significant issue while passenger volumes are down, but as flights resume, this additional space requirement will become problematic for some airports.

Disinfection has become paramount anywhere masses of people congregate.

Another challenge will be the reduction of personal touching in the screening process to protect screening officers and passengers from possible infection. The pre-COVID screening environment required alarms from technology (such as walk-through metal detectors) to be resolved by way of physical searches. In the post COVID environment, this may be reduced. The use of technology such as full body scanners or explosive trace detection will need to be used more, which could provide for a very targeted physical search as opposed to the physical search which is often needed to resolve a walk-through metal detector alarm. When physical searches are required, techniques will need to be changed to avoid being face-to-face with passengers or other persons being screened. Additionally, screening officers and passengers will need to wear masks to avoid possible disease transmission.

A reduction in physical touching of persons and their belongings is essential in a COVID environment, and such advances will no doubt prove beneficial to all in the long run.

Since the COVID-19 virus can live on surfaces, screeners will want to limit how much they are touching baggage or personal belongings of passengers. Currently, traditional two-dimensional x-rays (either single view or dual view) require an area of concern to be addressed by a physical search of baggage. Since this may present a risk of exposure to the screening officer, technological resolution of the alarm is preferable. New advanced screening technology using computed tomography x-ray (CTX) could provide for on-screen resolution of the area of concern.

New, advanced screening and explosives detection equipment is already being implemented at a number of Canadian, US, European and Middle Eastern airports, such as the Hamad International Airport in Qatar. This new technology can virtually detect threat items in the bag. With such advanced screening technology, passengers have the freedom to keep electronic devices such as laptops, tablets, and digital cameras in their hand luggage while going through security checkpoints, thus speeding up the inspection process and improving customer service while also providing a hygiene benefit.

Ironically, due to COVID-19, the deployment of new advanced screening equipment that allows for less physical contact, is being delayed in Europe.

The increased use of remote screening, where the screening officer is in a separate room away from the check point, would further protect the screening officer from exposure to COVID-19.

Although passenger volumes are significantly reduced right now, screening authorities are being encouraged by IATA and ACI to maintain pre-COVID staffing levels for the current period. The reasons are two-fold: one, during the initial period of restart, processes will be slower and more labour intensive. Secondly, according to the International Standards and Recommended Practices, if screeners are not working for 6 months, they must be retrained. This cost to re-training screening officers, is borne by the screening operator and sometimes the screeners themselves.

For health and safety reasons related to COVID-19, all passengers travelling with Qatar Airways receive a single-use face mask and shield to wear throughout their journey.

The Future

Overall, the screening process may take more time and be more expensive to implement, especially when flight volumes increase. However, several of the proposed changes were being considered prior to COVID-19 and are being implemented sooner out of necessity. Airports and screening authorities will be required to invest in technology sooner than planned, but some of these new technologies will actually speed up security processing.

Some countries may not be able to invest in the technological upgrades needed to reduce physical contact during the screening process, and that risk will be carefully considered by international travellers going forward.

During the first phase of international flight resumption, patience will be needed on the part of passengers and security professional.

Shawn Goudge is the Regional Manager of Aviation Security for Africa and the Middle East at the International Air Transport Association (IATA).