Airport (in)security & the digital economy disruption

Airport security and the digital disruption

In any typical year, my travel takes me through dozens of airports within four to five continents. Talking about the people I meet and things I see at these airports could easily produce a few hefty books. I want to focus on two things I dread about these airports: the taxi ride to the airport and “security” arrangements.

The taxi ride to the airport allows me to judge the health of the local economy and the mood of my business customers. I can say “turn on the meter”, “wrong way”, “don’t cheat, I call police”, “keep the change” in dozen of languages.

In Asia, a good indicator of a driver’s honesty is the airport trip from downtown Singapore: it just can’t be straighter. In the space of 7 days I was taken for a “scenic” tour (from Clarke Quay via HarbourFront) by a taxi driver, and only the hard whack of my palm into the headrest prevented similar behavior from another taxi driver. Based on this, I knew that economic doldrums of China had started affecting the rest of Asia. We are definitely heading for a period of insecurity in business.

Besides caring about the “business security” of my customers, I also care about my physical security while flying. This brings me to my second subject: the airport security screening. There are essentially two types of practices.

One that involves “access-to-all gates” – single point security after the check-in concourse, often featuring snaking queues of travel-weary souls moving in robotic motion to the point of their “security touch”. At these points, security crews have to handle hundreds of people as quickly as possible, or so everybody pretends.

The other practice features security screening at the secured gate area (seen in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and some European airports). In this scenario, the security crew moves from gate to gate and handles between 150-600 passengers at each gate. Although rare to see, a few airports will employ both types of screenings. Each has its upsides and downsides.

Airport security and digital economy disruption

Given the explosion in passenger volume intra-Asia and originating from Asia, there are two striking developments you’ll notice at Asian airports, and soon at a major airport near you. Depending on the availability of workers in each airport city, the security screening is done by teams of varying sizes – anywhere from a team of 2+1 to a team of 4+1 people per screening position. You will also notice that many of them are tired. Yes, tired.

At DELMIA Quintiq, where I work, we know a lot about fatigue. Our software for workforce planning and optimization is most often the selected solution by air traffic controller organizations. This is because we can profile and assign each individual to positions depending on a slew of factors, including a person’s propensity to tire while performing a specific function. With this in mind, constant care is taken when optimizing shifts, position rotations, task assignments, etc. to prevent fatigue amongst air traffic controllers.

Looking back at the security screening workers, I believe similar measure to fight fatigue needs to be applied to them as well. Too many times I am able to sense that the person operating the scanner is the only person paying attention, and only just, as after peering at dozens of items, their eyes strain and their checks become more perfunctory. The physical patdown also becomes more routine with every passenger, as the screener has to bend and raise repeatedly and the physical tiredness creeps in. Let’s not talk about the “helpers” positioned in front of the scanning machine and organizing your carry-ons. From my observation, these behavior signals that their work shifts were arranged by rudimentary, one-size-fits-all, cookie cutter, a.k.a. the shift rosterer.

If you care to look closer, you will see that the disruptive nature of the “Internet of Things” has caught up with the airport security. With more equipment sensors around than ever before and cacophony of beeps coming at the security teams and passengers from all directions, the most dangerous “internet thing” can be often seen in the hand(s) of the screener: their smartphone. While facing strings of packages and people, the digitally savvy frequently steal glances at their phones’ screens, scroll through social updates, and with a longer gap between passengers, they will even type a message or two. It is proven, that when you are deeply engaged in your activity and get interrupted or distracted, you will have difficulty to instantaneously switch back to the primary activity and perform at the same intensity as before the distraction occurred. This means, that to employ a Gen-something in the airport security role, we need to accommodate another factor while optimizing for minimal task fatigue. Because it is obvious that the digital “things” are not going away anytime soon.

Based on my work in this area, understanding these issues amongst companies providing security screenings at airports is frighteningly low. Assigning people to work rosters is often simple, fast food restaurant-like chore using run-of-the-mill rostering software or sometimes, even more mind-boggling, heavily customized field service dispatch applications. To add insult to injury, low-paid screener jobs attract a variety of employees with varying motivations to do the job, and varying spans of attention. This often discourages companies from investing in better work habits and sophisticated software solutions to help plan and assign employees according to a variety of work factors contributing to fatigue development.

Growth in airport traffic is not abating, so the problems of (in)security screenings at the airports will only grow. We already know that machines, no matter how sophisticated they get, are no match for human ingenuity, so human screeners are going to be with us for many more years. Please make sure they are awake and aware when you pass them on your next trip to the airport gate. Your life will depend on it.

If you found this topic interesting, leave your comment or suggestion. I will be happy to listen and respond.

On a broader note, I manage the Asia Pacific division of DELMIA Quintiq, a constant innovator in applying mathematical optimization to solve real life business planning & execution problems. All of my written work draw on real-life business experiences with my clients. Asian examples feature big, because I live and work in this region and see its dynamics first hand. If this interests you, please follow me on LinkedIn to receive my latest updates.