The challenge of COVID-19 to aviation security

Posted on Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Author: Prof. Mark Salter

Mark Salter

Core Member and Risk, Technology and Security Research Cluster Lead, ISSP
Full Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, uOttawa

Originally published by The Hill Times on April 6, 2020

Viruses fly all the time, but rarely have they been as deadly as COVID-19, which will change aviation security as much as 9/11. The novel Coronavirus is changing our appreciation of risk; it has flipped the question of the global aviation sector from surge capacity to viability; and it demonstrates the levels of cultural shift and honest public discussion needed in Canada. The government also needs to pay special attention to the North, a vulnerable population that has been dependent on air routes for medical travel, food, and other essentials.

The COVID-19 generation is now learning what security professionals have known for years: people are bad risk imaginers. Since the Hindenburg, flying has been much safer and more secure than driving or other modes of public transport: accidents were fewer, and security incidents were even rarer. However, spectacular failures of the system—like 9/11, Lockerbie, and Air India—made aviation security an especially sensitive object of public attention. The frequency or likelihood of large-scale events was impossible to predict, and because the enemy was always learning and adapting difficult to mitigate in the complex space of the airport without hampering necessary global travel. Security professionals, carriers, operators, and regulators did their best to stay on top of intelligence with new technologies, standards and procedure, but the primary way of reacting has been public education: “see something, say something.”

Now, with COVID-19, another low-probability high-impact event, the public will have to re-educated about a new vector of unimaginable, undetectable risk: the virus. Just as the public had to be taught to limit and isolate liquids, manage their carry-on and hold-baggage, and be ready to divest, the biosecurity regime will require new practices, new technologies, and new security cultures that have to be communicated to the public in authoritative and clear ways. Enrolling the public in a new security regime will be the key to regaining trust in the sector and reactivating demand, that is depending on how the aviation sector holds up.

In the past five years, one of the primary questions in the aviation security field has been, ‘How will we cope with all this new volume?’ A general growth in civil aviation was accompanied by the rapid expansion of a new sector: low-cost airlines, that extended the global network and intensified air traffic density along new routes; China, we were told, was building a new international airport every six months; Heathrow needed a third runway, etc., all of which are supply-side problems. But, quarantines are changing all that, because the closing of borders, and the imposition of isolation policies choke demand, and we can only speculate as to what the aviation sector will look like in six months. How much will government be willing to subsidize air carriers and airports—and all the attendant retail and air-side businesses like caterers, fuel farms, mechanics, and freight-forwarders, and for how long? To survive the coming recession and the threat to the aviation sector, governments, airlines and operators are going to restructure to incentivize demand as well as rationalize cost.

What counts as “public security” is radically changing to include a renewed focus on public health infrastructure and how the global economy relates to international mobility. Facing threats that are the result of the complexity and interconnectedness of contemporary life, just-in-time production, trans-continental food production, global capital markets, all depend on international mobility—and often air transport. Try to imagine how many hands touched those kiwis on their journey from Italy to your local super-market. Maybe don’t. We have undergone these changes before—even within this generation. However, while low probability, high-impact events like 9/11, can be traced to political adversaries, we are seeing more non-human threats that require a different kind of intelligence, surveillance, and security apparatus.

The January 1998 ice storm across Ontario and Quebec led to an unprecedented peace-time military deployment in Canada and the need to rebuild large swaths of the electrical grid infrastructure. Threats to public safety cannot always be traced to human error or bad intention, which is why the sector has adopted an “all hazards approach” to focus on resilience, regardless of the inciting crisis. The ice storm reinforced the 72-hour rule (every citizen needs to be prepared for three days of isolation in a crisis).

The attacks of 9/11 elicited a new public campaign—”see something, say something.” The coronavirus is going to require the same quotidian change in everyday security culture—everywhere from the supermarket, to the airport. Here is the opportunity to roll-out touchless technologies for identity verification and security clearance, get serious about wave scanners and other “at-a distance” detectors, and rethink queue management and thus space requirements. It was always tricky to quantify the efficiency of security screening by throughput rates, but those standards are going to need to be rethought spatially, if the new grocery store protocol becomes our standard for social distancing.

What is true about our need for a robust security response across Canada is doubly true for Canada’s north. For example, Nunavut has a population of approximately 16,000 people in 12 communities. Outside of an annual sea lift for bulk goods in late-July or August, air is the only way to transport fresh food to Canada’s Arctic communities— and estimates are that 70-80 per cent of households are food insecure in normal times. And, because of the lack of hospital capacity (only 35 beds in Iqaluit’s Qikiqtani General Hospital), medical travel to southern Canada is an essential mode to provide basic medical and dental care. In addition to thinking about how to support major international airports and national airlines weather this storm, the government must also engage with its northern partners and make extraordinary efforts to ensure that the North stays healthy. Northern communities have been finding innovative ways to thrive for hundreds of years, but this presents a challenge when air travel is both a vector of infection and the necessary support for healthy communities.

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