The commercial aviation industry has undergone a radical change
since 11 September. Airlines around the world are
putting in place extreme security measures – for their
staff as well as passengers, writes Aaron Karp
US federal authorities recently arrested 66 workers at North Carolina’s
Charlotte-Douglas International Airport for allegedly using false
identification documents to get their jobs and attain badges for access to
Forty-five of the arrested worked for one company, Priem Building Services,
which provides cleaning services in flight boarding areas at Douglas. The company
insists it conducted background checks on all the employees, whom the
authorities say are nearly all illegal immigrants from central and South
America. In many cases, police say the workers used fraudulent US social
security numbers to gain employment.
Charlotte became the third major US airport in a three-month period to have
a large number of workers arrested in a government sting operation, and US
officials warn more such mass arrests of airport personnel are likely. Making
matters worse for management in Charlotte, many airport workers failed to come
to work the day after the arrests for fear that they too could be arrested.
Prior to the Charlotte arrests, 20 workers at Boston Logan International
Airport and 69 Salt Lake City International Airport employees were arrested,
all charged with using fake documents to gain employment and access to secure
areas of the airport in which they worked. US officials say similar probes,
launched in the wake of 11 September, are under way at airports throughout the
US. "We will prosecute aggressively to secure the safety of the
public," declares US attorney general John Ashcroft. "Americans who
pass through our nation’s airports and travel on our nation’s airlines must and
will be protected. The Justice Department will enforce the law fully and
The US is not the only country encountering intensified attention at its
airports and on its employees. Two airside robberies in February and March at
London Heathrow Airport have contributed to the UK government’s late March
announcement of new airport security procedures.
Measures will include new requirements for the identification, recovery and
deletion of security passes that have been lost or are no longer needed;
extended counter-terrorist checks on security staff; and criminal record checks
on staff working in restricted areas.
Such incidents underline the radical change in the commercial aviation
industry since the US terrorist attack. Airports are now a critical,
high-profile link in a vast security network being configured to thwart
terrorists from unleashing further attacks. Everybody from the airport toilet
cleaner now represents a potential weak link in airline security networks.
For airline and airport management, a brave new world has taken shape. Now
vetting employees and strictly guarding access to certain areas of an airport
have become top priorities. Training airline personnel to handle potential
hijackers has also become a priority. New aviation security requirements
post-11 September have created tremendous HR challenges for aviation executives
throughout the world, especially in the US.
Nearly all of the air transport security responsibilities in the US have
been handed over to a newly created federal agency, the Transportation Security
Administration (TSA). Part of the US Department of Transportation (DOT), it has
the daunting task of hiring, training and deploying a workforce of between
30,000 and 60,000 to man airport screening checkpoints in US airports.
In late March, the first 300 screener-trainers reported to a DOT centre in
Oklahoma City to begin schooling on how to train and prepare federal airport
screeners. Over a four-week period, 1,200 screener-trainers underwent training.
"We are committed to hiring the best and the brightest for these critical
security positions, people who can provide the best possible training in
security and customer service for travellers," said US Transport Secretary
Norman Mineta on the first day of the training. "We are determined to keep
our skies safe and friendly."
This initial class of trainers was composed of former airline, security, law
enforcement and military personnel.
TSA head John Magaw said: "These 300 men and women are the first of a
force that will be responsible for helping to train and supervise airport
screeners at 429 airports nationwide."
The TSA has said screeners will be trained in three broad areas. The first,
quite obviously, is learning how to screen people, baggage and cargo. Second,
they will be taught skills in stress management and conflict resolution. Third,
the screeners will be trained how to treat passengers professionally and with
courtesy. Mineta has stressed that the federal airport-screening workforce will
be expected to provide not just security, but top-notch customer service as
By the time training is completed, Magaw says the screeners will be required
to possess a number of competencies. Among other things, these include having
the ability to: carefully discern and discriminate; perform duties ‘while being
subject to distractions'; follow sets of complex directions; perform well
‘under demanding situations'; and cope with conflicts.
The training screeners will now receive in the US contrasts starkly to the
minimal guidance low-wage screeners contracted by airlines had previously been
Airport screeners in Israel, where the prospect of aviation-related
terrorism has been a real and present danger for more than 25 years, have long
been viewed as an elite-level force of highly-intelligent national security
Israel Airports Authority director Yomtob Sabah explains that security
personnel need to receive "extensive training that should include learning
physical observation skills and drills that include surprise checks". He
adds that security personnel should be rotated on a regular basis – no more
than three or four months working in the same job in the same part of the
airport – so they do not lose interest in their jobs.
All Israeli airport security officials "are between the ages of 21 and
25 so there is an alertness and eagerness [among the guards]," says Sabah.
"And they should have a high IQ. It’s very important to have intelligent
people." He explains that airport security personnel should be given
‘recognition’, saying: "That’s important. They should be congratulated.
Make the job something different and more respected than selling bagels at the
Sabah emphasises that the guards should receive "constant training so
they have an unbreakable discipline". He also believes that security must
be a priority throughout airports, not just at checkpoints: "Educate all
of the airport staff and make sure they have an awareness, whether it’s
cleaners, taxi drivers or whoever. Awareness is the key."
Indeed, for airports, security is a more complicated matter than having a
top-level screener workforce – staff throughout an airport possess a security
risk. In the Charlotte-Douglas case, law enforcement officials say none of the
arrested are believed to have links to known terrorists. But the employees’
status as illegal immigrants and their low wages make them easy targets to be
manipulated by terrorists, say officials.
Carefully guarding access to and in airports, particularly by ensuring only
staff who need to be in such areas are allowed in, is key to airport security,
say aviation security experts. For this reason, biometric hand geometry
scanners have been in place at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for
more than a decade, used instead of badges or cards to grant qualified employees
access to various parts of the airport. SFO has placed hand geometry equipment
at 180 doors and requires all of its 30,000 airport employees to be members of
its hand identity programme.
Other airports are testing this method for employee access on a more limited
basis. But the overwhelming majority of airports still employ card access
Bill Spence, director of marketing at Recognition Systems, which produces
the hand scanners, says: "Card-based systems have become the standard in the
"With a card-based system, we just hope the person is who they claim to
be. A card-based system ensures the right piece of plastic gets access."
he adds. "Only a biometric system can ensure that the right person gains
access." Spence says the equipment takes 96 unique measurements of an
employee’s hand and stores them in a computer database so only that individual
can pass the hand geometry scan to gain access to a secure area.
"Airports are very exposed environments," he explains. "If
you have somebody else’s card or badge, you have a good chance of gaining
access. A biometric system will never allow someone with a false card through
an access door."
Long-time SFO official Ron Wilson says the airport introduced hand geometry
systems to employees in a straightforward manner: "It was either use the
machines or you don’t work, so you don’t have much of a choice." He adds
that the system "works like a charm – it’s really the way to go to enhance
To qualify for employment at SFO recruits must undergo a criminal background
check. This is done with the use of electronic fingerprint scanners that are
directly linked to a US’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) database.
Prospective employees’ fingerprints are immediately cross-checked with the FBI
database which lists individuals convicted of any of 32 different felonies in
his or her lifetime.
About 10 per cent of prospective employees come up positive, explains
Wilson. The airport then forwards those applications to the San Francisco
Police Department for further review. Following the police review, about 1 per
cent of those applying for jobs at SFO do not clear criminal background check
requirements to gain employment at the airport.
In the aftermath of 11 September, airports throughout the US have conducted
background checks on current and former employees using fingerprint scanners
connected to law enforcement databases.
But given the nature of the US attacks, training and vetting employees
working on the ground in airports is just part of the aviation security
Pilots and flight attendants on board aircraft are also being trained in
managing disturbances that could potentially lead to deadly terrorist activity.
In January, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued new, detailed
guidelines to airlines for training flight crews in dealing with potential
hijackings. The FAA says the guidance was developed in consultation with
airlines, pilots and flight attendants.
The new FAA training policy represents a shift in strategy from previous,
pre-11 September guidance that encouraged flight crews to treat hijackers with
"passive resistance" – co-operating with those seizing aircraft in
the belief that the terrorists will ultimately instruct pilots to safely land.
But with hijacked aircraft now viewed as potential guided missiles, the new
training rules encourage "active resistance".
The FAA says that the "actual training guidance cannot be made public
due to national security concerns". But the agency provides several
‘highlights’, which include:
– Any passenger disturbance should be considered suspicious, as it could be
a diversion for more serious acts.
– In a threatening situation, crew members must act as a team. Should a
threat arise, the cabin crew and flight crew must communicate in clear,
concise, plain English.
– In any suspected or actual hijack attempt, the flight crew should land the
aircraft as soon as possible to minimise the time hijackers would have to
commandeer the aircraft and use it as a weapon of mass destruction
And as the need arises, business is rising to the challenge to meet it. For
instance Boeing, through its Flight Safety Boeing Training International joint
venture, has teamed up with Advanced Interactive Systems to offer airlines new
cabin and flight crew training to meet the new FAA rules.
Major elements in which crews will receive training are: determining the
seriousness of an occurrence; crew communication and co-ordination; appropriate
self-defence response; use of protective devices provided to crews; psychology
of terrorism for coping with terrorists and passengers; and flight deck
procedures or aircraft manoeuvres to defend the aircraft.
Some airlines are already providing personal defence training for their air
crews. Delta Air Lines, for instance, is offering voluntary, paid defence
training to its flight attendants, which number more than 19,000, through PPCT
Management Systems. "The eleventh of September ushered in a new reality
for the industry and its flight attendants," says Delta’s in-flight
service senior vice-president Sharon Wibben. "Flight attendant personal
defence training is an additional investment in our staff through building
their knowledge and confidence in their own personal security."
To alleviate the pressure on flight crews, the US government has decided to
place air marshals on as many flights as possible. Despite more than 100,000
applicants to fill air marshal jobs in the US, the stiff requirements and
intensive training necessary to become qualified severely restrict the pool of
Prospective air marshals are put through psychological and physical
examinations, followed by a drugs test and background check.
Finally, applicants are given a ‘weapons manipulation test’ to determine how
accurately they can fire a gun. FAA officials carefully scrutinise a
candidate’s gun-handling capability, particularly under intense pressure.
If an applicant passes these trials, training commences shortly after in
Atlantic City, New Jersey. Air marshals are trained to blend in, appearing to
be just another passenger on the flight. They undergo psychological training
intended to teach them to stay alert at all times and observe the behaviour of
other passengers, looking for danger signs. The mental training also includes
developing skills that enable them to stay calm in dangerous, stressful
There are two firing ranges at the Atlantic City facilities, one of which
features targets that fall down when hit by bullets. Marshals-in-training at
the ranges are taught to draw and fire guns from a seated position. There is
also a ‘shoot house’ in which trainees participate in live fire exercises.
The shoot house is configured like an aircraft and is set up to safely
handle the discharge of weapons. A Lockheed L-1011 TriStar designated for air
marshal training sits on the Atlantic City airport tarmac – during simulated
hijackings, trainees shoot paint balls. As marshals are being trained, law
enforcement personnel from various government agencies are standing in as air
marshals on an interim basis.
In common with airport employees, airline pilots and flight attendants will
have to undergo background checks, says the DOT in a proposed rule. The checks
will be required of all new and current employees, even long-serving workers.
This prospect makes union officials nervous, highlighting another HR challenge
for management: how to deal with unions wary of new security rules.
International Brotherhood of Teamsters’ officials assert that the background
check rule would fail to give ‘adequate due process’ to employees hired prior
to the rule’s enactment.
"Certain airline employees, including pilots, have already undergone
background checks as part of their employment obligations," writes
Teamsters airline division director Ray Benning in a letter to the DOT.
"Moreover, these employees have demonstrated their loyalty and
trustworthiness through years of active service. Application of the rule to
these employees poses an unnecessary administrative burden and an unfair
alteration of working conditions for employees who have invested years in their
careers as airline employees."
Benning fears the proposed rule allows for no review of an employee’s
individual circumstance and would arbitrarily dismiss workers who have been
convicted of a criminal offence. Since different states have different criminal
laws, the rule makes no allowances for crimes that may only be violations of a
particular state’s laws, explains Benning. Additionally, he writes, some
offences are treated less seriously by one state compared to another, meaning
two employees convicted of a similar crime in different states could be treated
differently by airlines and the FAA if convictions are discovered in background
However, whether unions or employees like it or not, new, strict
requirements for vetting employees – both prospective and current – are here to
stay, say aviation security experts. This may be the best weapon management has
in the new world of aviation security.
With the now ongoing war on terrorism sparked by criminal hijackers
manipulating the commercial aviation system, employees in the aviation industry
have little choice – adhere to new security rules or find a new line of work.
This feature first appeared in Personnel Today’s sister publication
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Above, simulated hijackings allow air
marshals to test their defence skills during realistic training sessions
conducted on board a stationary plane while, left, a plastic identification
card system cannot guarantee security and is being replaced in some airports by
hand geometry scans