Airport Security Gaps: Mitigating Risk via Contractor Vetting

Author: Mina Mina, Senior Director of Client Success

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Airport security continues to be a widely discussed issue; yet, one aspect often overlooked is the potential security threats posed by airport contractors.  

Though not usually pondered by travelers while they wait at terminals or baggage claims, eager to get from here to there, the actuality is a wide variety of services at airports and aboard planes are operated by outsourced workers. In fact, according to CNN, nearly one million contractors work behind the security wall at U.S. airports alone.

So, what are the leading known, manageable risks associated with airport operations that stricter contractor prequalification and vetting procedures could help prevent?

The areas of airport operations most likely to be at major operational risk include:

  • Airside Driver and Vehicle Operations
  • Apron Management
  • Biological
  • Construction and Maintenance  
  • FOD (Foreign Object Debris) Management
  • Ground Handling Operations
  • Hazardous Material Handling
  • Markings, Signs and Lighting
  • Movement Area Access Aerodrome Works  
  • Movement Area Maintenance
  • Movement of Aircraft
  • Obstacle Management
  • Rescue and Firefighting
  • Runway Operations
  • Winter Operation

Those working in these particularly high-risk areas of airport operations do typically have proscribed, activity-dependent procedures that must be followed at all times. That said, it’s critical that contractors also have the right level of experience and documentable expertise to ensure the safety of everyone involved.

By law, an airport contractor should have lifting, working at height and airside vehicle operational procedures and training programs for its employees. However, if a contractor has not developed appropriate procedures for driving operations airside and ensured the proper processes are in place to train employees, for example, there is a real risk of a vehicle incident potentially impacting the airframe or other vehicles.

The management of these areas of operational risk have notably increased in complexity with the utilization of contractors to undertake ground support activities that were traditionally undertaken by the airlines. Given the potential consequences associated with airside risks, in particular, it is critical that contractors are screened to ensure they understand the risks they are being exposed to when airside. 

When inadequately addressed, these risks can significantly disrupt business, potentially impacting specific flights, airlines and airport operations. The impact from one event can easily extend beyond contractor management. For example, if during a construction project a contractor’s employee accidentally severs a major fiber optic cable at an airport just as it is coming into a peak traffic period, the airport would likely need to shut down for 90 minutes or more and redirect airplanes to other airports, until airport officials were able to bring the systems back on line. 

The repercussions of this civil construction contractor not operating within appropriate ground disturbance procedures, resulting in the severing of the cable, would significantly impact passengers, airlines and the operation of the airports. Most importantly, this event could have been prevented, if the contractor had been screened and their ground disturbance procedure reviewed, prior to being awarded the contract.

While this is an example of a serious event that resulted in inconvenience for airline passengers and personnel in multiple locations, as well as financial loss and reputational impact, it could have been far worse. Contractor errors and inadequate contractor vetting can – and often do – result in more serious harm.

Continually monitoring contractors and their employees promises to help close the gaps in airport security, resulting in fewer injuries, improved efficiency, reduced costs and a safer environment for all.

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