The cost to airports of tackling the terrorist threat is spiralling, and uncertainty remains after a delay in the partial lifting of Europe's liquids ban. But how are extra measures at the checkpoint affecting operations and revenues?
A decade on from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, extra security requirements continue to dampen the passenger experience, threaten the efficiency of airline and airport operations and drain their bottom line.
While the economic impacts on the air travel sector are hard to quantify, airports grouping ACI Europe estimates security spending makes up more than 30% of total operating costs at some airports, compared with between 5% and 8% before 9/11.
Airlines are similarly feeling the strain through increased security charges and out-of-pocket costs. IATA predicts airlines are spending €4.9 billion ($7.4 billion) annually on security - a 25% increase from their previous estimate of €3.8 billion.
The airline industry body attributes the bulk of extra costs to increases in data collection and transmission, air marshals, air security officer programmes, capital expenditure and - a pressing issue - the rising costs of security delays and diversions.
While the lack of a level playing field between the USA and Europe in the funding of extra security measures has long driven the security agenda, airlines are often more concerned about the disruptive ripple effects on their flight schedules and service quality.
A case in point is where terrorist attacks have exposed weak links at the security checkpoint, prompting governments to mandate extra screening layers, which have turned the checkpoint into a chokepoint.
"The impact on our passengers and operation is often more considerable than the direct cost of carrying out extra security measures," explains Peter Jones, head of aviation security for Oneworld carrier British Airways. "The key issue for us is to ensure that additional [security] measures are proportionate to the threat, including considering any impact on convenience to our customers."
Jones questions how today's security approaches are adding value in their current form: "The system of passengers removing liquids, laptops, jackets, shoes and belts is putting too much emphasis on the detection of 'bad things'. A more balanced [intelligence-based] approach targeting 'bad people' needs to be implemented.
"I do not think the challenge is about additional security measures, but how to effectively integrate what we have to do in a more cohesive way." The European Union has taken heed of the industry's concerns to relieve the burden of extra security requirements on airlines, airports and passengers.
But its sudden u-turn in April - on relaxing the duty-free liquids ban for EU transfers - sharpens the debate that Europe and the rest of the world are flying in different directions, when it comes to achieving consistent security standards.
The EU's 29 April deadline to relax the rules for transfer passengers travelling from third countries was intended to be the first step towards removing the liquids ban across Europe altogether by April 2013. However, the EU was forced back to the drawing board after key member states, including the UK, Netherlands and France, disregarded the deadline over concerns that the liquid detection technology is not ready, and uneven adoption would cause mass passenger disruption. BA's Jones shares these concerns: "While we want to see a net improvement in the passenger experience, if by allowing some liquids again we cause other problems related to the technology giving false alarms, then it is not benefiting passengers."
While finding a technological fix is important, harmonising baseline security measures should be a priority for all stakeholders - not just at the airport checkpoint, but across the supply chain, argues Ben Swagerman, KLM head of security and IATA security group (SEG) chairman.
Today's fragmented approach to security worries Swagerman, who says it is threatening KLM's strong transfer product at Europe's fifth largest airport, Amsterdam Schiphol, where about 70% of the airline's total network make connections.
"The industry already has a huge problem with decreasing the time involved in the screening process. Every extra minute spent queuing increases the possibility of our passengers missing connections. KLM has always advocated a threat-based, risk-managed approach to security. We don't wish to see prescriptive rules but flexibility and differentiation at checkpoints, based on better intelligence and behavioural detection methods. Airports need a menu of options."
The impact of inconsistent security checks is also damaging passenger perceptions of airlines, says Swagerman.
"Care needs to be taken when applying security rules in such a way that people don't lose confidence in airlines. Ultimately if we [KLM] can't deliver our promise to customers, it will affect our brand and marketing strategy in a negative way."
Another long-running issue for airlines is the duplicate screening of passengers who are making connections at hub airports.
IATA, which has long advocated a "one-stop security" approach, says that re-screening passengers transferring at European airports from the USA is costing the EU about €20 million a year.
The airline industry body questions whether developing regions such as China and India will be able to handle the job of processing rising passenger volumes at security checkpoints, with traffic expecting to reach 2.5 billion globally by year-end.
However, in Asia these concerns have not filtered through to the chief executive of AirAsia's low-cost long-haul unit, AirAsia X, which continues to push passengers to self-connect. "We have seen how tighter security measures haven't curbed travel volume [in Asia], and I feel airports and government agencies will eventually evolve and innovate security processes to be more passenger-friendly. Airports that can be the leaders in this will be distinctive," says AirAsia X chief executive Azran Osman-Rani.
"Typically, airports own the problem [of security]", says Craig Bradbrook, director of security and facilitation at ACI World. He points to the scattered picture in Europe, where the responsibility for the provision of security varies between airports, national police forces and regional and local authorities.
Among the airports embracing a differentiated approach to security is the UK's second largest airport, London Gatwick, which is working to make its security system more efficient and work better for passengers and airlines, says Geoff Williams, the airport's head of security.
Williams insists that heightened security measures don't always lead to congestion and flight delays. Between January 2010 and March 2011, over 97% of total passengers passed through security in less than five minutes, he says.
The airport is investing £45 million ($73 million) on security in 2011, and will fully open its South Terminal in the Autumn. A new security area will bring colour-coded queue monitoring to the checkpoint, assistance lanes for families and a fast-track premium service for business travellers. "Improving security is also part of our strategy to help our airlines grow," he adds. "It is important to keep investing in technology and to achieve the best possible [security] spend for each pound, so that we can offer airlines value-for-money."
In the Netherlands, Amsterdam Schiphol was the first airport to trial body scanners in 2006. However, it has taken five years and a failed terrorist attack on board Northwest flight 253 from Schiphol to Detroit for full-body scanners to gain a reasonable level of acceptance, KLM's Swagerman points out.
Schiphol is moving forward with plans to trial a new security lane, in close collaboration with Dutch authorities and KLM, which facilitates different levels of threat detection - including behavioural analysis, enhanced information sharing and intelligence.
NO SILVER BULLET
In the USA, the events of 9/11 have led to the adoption of a risk-based, layered security approach - and a continued focus on innovation through high-end technology.
While technology is not seen as the first line of defence, it is still considered an important part of the solution for airports and airlines to complement intelligence-based approaches taken before passengers reach the checkpoint.
Industry IT provider SITA continues to pursue its "intelligent airport" vision, to facilitate a more positive passenger experience and improve efficiency at airports, particularly at security.
This includes piloting a system for the validation of bar-coded boarding passes that would automatically alert an airline's departure control system of a passenger's arrival during a security scan.
"This automated technology would help airlines operationally if they know when their passengers are at the security checkpoint", says Kevin Peterson, SITA's senior product manager, airport solutions.
The industry is also striving to further its vision to redesign the traditional security checkpoint.
IATA is taking a "clean-sheet" approach to modernising the 40-year-old screening process, and is leading a global effort with ICAO and ACI to build an airport "checkpoint of the future", after the Yemen cargo bomb scare in October 2010.
The new concepts focus on a combination of using intelligence and technology to improve checkpoint efficiency and speed up the process.
Airlines can play an important role, Swagerman says: "The key to a better and modern security system lies in more sensible use of information - provided mainly by airlines - combined with intelligence, behavioural analysis, random checks and smart technology.
"Perhaps the most important element is also the human factor - educating and training staff better."
However, the success of IATA's initiative, which places emphasis on pre-screening passengers before the checkpoint, will lie in breaking barriers by sharing and standardising the exchange of passenger data, which remains a thorny issue in Europe over privacy concerns.
Achieving new security processes will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, suggests ACI's Bradbrook: "Until we can develop, operationally prove and gain regulatory acceptance for a next generation security process, we will have to focus on adapting and improving what we have today."
Read our feature on airline and airport partnership opportunities at: flightglobal.com/CrossingTheLine