Checkpoint Asia: staying ahead in security4 September 2013
Asia-Pacific leads the world in terms of passenger and air cargo volumes, and that growth is being matched by increased investment in aviation security. Julian Turner talks to Ahmed Bukalla, chairman of the ACI Asia-Pacific Aviation Security Committee, about evolving terrorist threats, advancements in airport screening technology and why overcoming cultural differences is key to establishing a coherent security policy.
Rapid infrastructure growth, flourishing trade and tourism, a flood of foreign equity capital - the economic boom in Asia-Pacific continues unabated and the region's commercial aviation sector is reaping the rewards, leading the world in terms of passenger growth and air cargo volumes.
Air traffic grew by 7.5% in 2012, driven by unprecedented demand from Asia's emerging middle class. Asia-Pacific airlines will purchase around 8,000 aircraft worth $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years, while in China, business travel spending is set to reach $226 billion, with the region's largest economy on course to overtake the US as the world's top business travel market in 2014.
In this edition of Future Airport Asia, Bob Dahl of Air Cargo Management Group notes that Asia-Pacific also accounts for roughly 40% of the global air freight market and that the sector continues to grow relatively quickly at around 6-8%, in defiance of the global market downturn.
Optimism abounds, then, but with Asia-Pacific's new-found power comes greater responsibility to protect these passengers from evolving terrorist threats by upgrading its security strategy and infrastructure. Playing a leading role in this revolution is the Airports Council International (ACI) Asia-Pacific Aviation Security Committee. Formed in 2007, it brings together security managers from airports across Asia-Pacific and the Middle East under the current chairmanship of Ahmed Bukalla, director of operations at the Department of Civil Aviation, Sharjah International Airport, UAE.
"While phenomenal traffic growth is generally good for business, it also puts a lot of pressure on airports to recruit and train enough security personnel to cope with that growth," says Bukalla.
"The most significant challenge is to take preventive measures before terrorists take us by surprise. Since the Pan Am bombing, we have been largely reactive, adding remedial measures one after another following each security incident. To be more proactive, the industry needs to work closely with governments on threat assessment."
For businesses and tourists alike, the gravitational pull exerted by Asia-Pacific is directly attributable to its cultural, political and economic diversity. However, as Bukalla explains, this lack of uniformity represents a significant hurdle when it comes to establishing an aviation security blueprint for the region.
"The unique political and economic diversity of the Asia-Pacific region could create a specific threat to aviation security," he warns. "States have very different perceptions of the threat level and very different capacities to be able to handle security threats; this could lead to loopholes being exploited by terrorists.
"The cultural diversity in this region can also be an obstacle to international cooperation. The ACI, together with other global bodies, is trying hard to break down these barriers in order to promote mutual understanding and cooperation."
For its part, the ACI Asia-Pacific Aviation Security Committee fosters closer relationships between regional stakeholders and global industry bodies, such as the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), with a view to improving security management through the sharing of technologies, intellectual capital and best-practice guidelines.
"The ACI and other international organisations are spending a lot of resources on training," Bukalla explains. "The ACI has five training centres in the region - in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Incheon, Hyderabad and Kuala Lumpur - to help airports train security personnel."
Security screening and surveillance upgrades
As more airports open across the Asia-Pacific region in response to increased passenger traffic, so the pressure grows on airport operators to invest in state-of-the-art technologies that automate passenger screening, surveillance and access control.
Innovations including SmartGate passport processing, IP-based surveillance and biometric facial identification are already being trialled at international hubs throughout the region. Integrating these new technologies with legacy systems across different operational areas won't come cheap, however - Frost & Sullivan estimates that airport security spending in Australia alone will exceed US$640 million by 2015.
"Asia-Pacific airports are not only adopting innovative technologies, but also improving them," confirms Bukalla. "The advent of cargo-screening technology based on neutron and X-ray radiography, and the application of fibre Bragg grating (FBG) technology in the detection of airport perimeter intrusion, are good examples.
"Body scanners pay for themselves at large airports by eliminating secondary hand searches and divestments. The extension of the use of body scanners will depend on traffic growth, cost and perceived threat levels; the walk-through metal detector will remain a cost-competitive option in the near future," he adds.
Returning to the subject of Australia, currently the focus of a mini infrastructure boom with terminal upgrades ongoing at Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart Airports, Bukalla makes reference to changes in key aviation security legislation and the tangible effects on passengers.
"The first change relates to the use of liquid explosive scanners," he says. "At the moment, it is limited to a small number of transfer passengers at Australian airports. However, when the technology becomes mature and its use is extended to other Australian airports, as well as those outside the country, more passengers will see the difference as the ban on liquids - duty-free or toiletry items, for example - is lifted.
"That will mean increased convenience for passengers and less check-in luggage for airlines and baggage handlers; it will also be good news for retailers.
"The second change, the adoption and expansion of body scanners at airports, will come later, as the technology matures and becomes cheaper.
"This will spark debates around privacy and health issues, and lawmakers will have to decide if body scanners should be compulsory or optional. In countries such as the UK, of course, the technology is already mandatory - no scan, no fly."
The private security sector boom
Frost & Sullivan reports that overall homeland security spending across Asia-Pacific is projected to hit $30 billion by the year 2014 and that the region's airport security market could be worth as much as $9.23 billion in 2015.
Increasingly, the bill for these upgrades will be footed by the private sector as governments lacking the financial means to expand airports become more inclined towards privatisation or public-private partnerships. As a result, private sector firms operating in airport security growth markets such as China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand are gearing up for boom times.
"Hub airports in Asia-Pacific are attractive options for private investors because of the still largely untapped growth potential and the relatively stable income," Bukalla says. "A significant number of airports in Asia-Pacific are already run by corporations operating to commercial principles, although they are still fully or partially owned by governments, which see airports as strategic assets.
"When privatisation comes, there will be pressure for further productivity gains, and airport operators will need to be even more innovative and adopt new technologies to stay competitive."
In Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand, where combined aviation security spending is estimated at over $1 billion, foreign companies may partner with local firms and offer value-added services such as training and support to stay ahead in an increasingly competitive sector.
Boeing's long-term market outlook estimates that the Asia-Pacific aviation market will be worth $1.5 trillion by 2030, far outstripping any other region.
Dubai International Airport in the UAE, for example, is set to take over from London's Heathrow Airport as the world's busiest for international traffic by 2015.
Against this backdrop of unprecedented growth and geopolitical diversity, Bukalla reflects on the evolution of aviation security in Asia-Pacific as the region responds to pressure to keep pace with developments in the West.
"The Beijing Convention, adopted in 2010, will induce states to enact legislations to outlaw terrorism committed on civil aviation, and, perhaps more importantly, strengthen international cooperation against terrorism; for example, by facilitating the extradition of terrorist suspects," he predicts.
"The security incidents since 9/11 have spurred technological developments," he continues. "Assuming the current political conflicts remain unresolved and terrorists still have enough financial resources to remain innovative, governments and the industry will also continue to develop and adopt new security technologies.
"Primarily as a result of these evolving threats and technological advancements, the next decade will see more changes than in the last 30 years since the Pan Am bombing."