Airport Screening Offers No Assurance

Airport Screening

If you are one of the 60 million passengers a year shuffling through security at Australian domestic airports, divesting yourself of belts and laptops and wondering if all these security measures have any point, you are not alone. Not even the Office of Transport Security (OTS) – the department responsible for the implementation and ongoing regulation of security controls at airports – can tell you, according to the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO).

The ANAO, which operates under the Federal Auditor-General, recently tabled in Parliament a report of an independent performance audit of the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, titled Passenger Security Screening at Domestic Airports. Maybe it was the lack of a snappy title, or maybe the photo opportunity of former Prime Minister Tony Abbot having a cuppa with Pauline Hanson proved to be too alluring, but the report went entirely unnoticed by the media.

In it, the ANAO notes the department is responsible for setting minimum standards and running compliance programs for airport screening. It goes on to say, “However, the Department is unable to provide assurance that passenger screening is effective, or to what extent screening authorities comply with regulations, due to poor data and inadequate records.” It adds, “The Department does not have meaningful passenger screening performance targets or strategies and does not direct resources to areas with a higher risk of non-compliance.”

The OTS has spent $272,428 on several aviation security reviews since 2009 that have all identified gaps and recommended improvements. As it turns out, the ANAO spent a further $521,345 to discover nothing new, “The Department has not addressed a number of systemic issues that hamper its ability to implement a risk-based regulatory regime and provide assurance as to the effectiveness of passenger screening. The need to develop performance measures, analyse compliance data, implement an enforcement policy and provide adequate training have been identified in successive reviews but solutions are yet to be delivered.”

One example of such delays is in testing the detection of firearms, which one would think would be pretty fundamental. Among the system tests, one involves a replica gun used to check the screening process and its ability to detect firearms in carry-on baggage. The OTS suspended the test in March 2014 because of “firearms licencing and work health and safety concerns”. A 2016 risk mitigation plan identified “safety and operational risks” associated with the test, but pointed out additional risk controls and strengthened operating procedures could reduce that risk to an acceptable level. “Nevertheless, a decision on the future of this test is yet to be made, two years after it was suspended,” the report says.

If you have ever thought things seemed just a little chaotic – such as screeners in one airport allowing one thing and those in another airport saying differently – six procedural documents relating to the application of risk to the compliance program were provided to the ANAO during the audit, with the report stating, “All of the documents were undated and contained inconsistencies, primarily with regard to the number of applicable security mitigation categories in the compliance program. Some documents referred to eight categories and some referred to seven. Some documents listed eight categories in one part of the document and seven in another.” What hope does a screening officer have?

To be sure, some people within the department have had a crack at getting things moving and, in fairness, there are some exceptionally dedicated people working in the OTS, but according to the ANAO report, “progress has been delayed”. However, lack of attention to aviation security of late suggests that it has somewhat gone off the boil.

If you bear in mind the 9/11 hijackers used domestic aircraft to carry out their heinous attacks, if (when?) something happens in the future, no doubt someone, somewhere will be digging up this report as evidence that someone, somewhere dropped the ball. Meanwhile, we will have to keep shuffling through airport screening, never really knowing whether it is achieving anything.

Rod Cowan
Rod Cowan has contributed for over 30 years to security around the world through his writing, teaching, speaking at industry conferences and public events, as well as assisting in various Government investigations and corporate research. Cowan is a Research Fellow with the Research Network for a Secure Australia ( and was convener of its Safeguarding Australia Annual Summit 2017 in Canberra. He is also a Strategic Advisor to the Dubai-based Emirates Group Security/Edith Cowan University Centre of Aviation and Security Studies (CASS).