Ensuring there is an effective security culture in aviation as we recover from COVID-19

By Dr Rannia Leontaridi, OBE FRSA, UK Department for Transport

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The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the civil aviation industry around the world. Whilst appropriate authorities and regulators must be mindful of the constraints on the industry as it recovers from the crisis, ICAO’s Year of Security Culture 2021 presents an opportunity for encouraging the industry to build back better. As the workforce returns, the importance of effective security behaviours needs to be reinforced. In broad terms, building an effective security culture is an opportunity, and shouldn’t be viewed as a cost or burden. At its best, it is the creation of a more effective and informed environment within which security staff and stakeholders across an airport campus can operate.

Amongst other issues, COVID-19 has necessitated the aviation industry to take some difficult decisions with regard to staffing. In the UK, and many other jurisdictions, this has resulted in a temporary scaling down of aviation operations, often involving furlough or considerable periods of staff being out of work. As the industry recovers it is important that organisations reorient their staff and reinforce essential security behaviours.

There is no reason to believe that COVID-19 has reduced the attractiveness of aviation as a terrorist target. In fact, it is likely that disruptions in the sector have exposed new vulnerabilities and risks. For example, financial difficulties caused by the pandemic might make employees (‘insiders’) more susceptible to coercion or exploitation by threat actors. Economic uncertainties in the sector and consequential job security issues will have undoubtedly caused anxiety, and possibly disaffection, amongst employees. These feelings can often be a gateway on the path to becoming an insider. One way to meet these new challenges is to ensure the importance of security culture is stressed and organisations explicitly promoting good behaviours in aviation as the sector recovers.

The view from the UK

The UK’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI) champions the maintenance of effective security behaviours as a vital part of addressing the threat faced by our transport networks and critical infrastructure. Drawing on the latest academic work in the fields of behavioural change and change management, the CPNI developed a pragmatic framework to improve security behaviour. This includes their own experiences in facilitating practical security culture campaigns and programmes.

From the UK’s perspective, security culture is an indispensable tool in meeting the demands of protective security operations. International standards, domestic regulation, and the latest technological solutions are all important. However, without a motivated staff, supported by a robust security culture, to implement these measures, a security operation could be vulnerable.

 Framework to changing security behaviours

The CPNI’s five-step framework, often referred to as the 5Es, is outlined in this table. When seeking to improve security behaviours within your organisation and at your airport(s) it is recommended you consider these elements.

The wider benefits

Time and resource invested in developing good security behaviours also provide benefits in tackling some of the other challenging issues facing civil aviation.

On countering the threat from hostile use of unmanned aircraft, safeguarding cyberinfrastructure, or mitigating the risk to air freight operations, an effective security culture can form a crucial part of our response. In the wake of the Gatwick incident, airports in the UK developed multi-layered approaches to countering drone misuse. These measures included greater security awareness amongst staff on the airport campus and residents in local communities. For example, the introduction of “drone hotlines” for the airport community, to report sightings and improve on-the-ground intelligence.

The benefits are clear. The global aviation industry has a long and proud tradition of prioritising safety, making it the responsibility of all stakeholders and all employees. We should aim to place security on a similar pedestal, as a fundamental concern of all involved in the aviation network. ICAO’s Year of Security Culture 2021 is an ideal opportunity to build back better security behaviours amongst employees and partners. ICAO has published incredibly useful tools, such as the Security Culture toolkit and the Security Culture Campaign starter pack which can help guide national and organisational conversations. The UK looks forward to working with ICAO, industry and all member states to make the year a success and to help embed robust security cultures in aviation systems around the world.


About the Author

Dr Rannia Leontaridi OBE FRSA, joined the UK’s Department for Transport in 2020, as the Director for Aviation and the Director General Civil Aviation for the UK. Prior to this she served as the Director for Business Growth, leading the UK Government’s policy on entrepreneurs, small businesses and new and emerging high growth and technology businesses. She devised and implemented the UK’s first Artificial Intelligence (AI) strategy and secured an AI sector deal in a partnership between the private sector, government and academia of £1bn.  She created and became the first Director for the Office for Artificial Intelligence for Her Majesty’s Government and led the Industrial Strategy Grand Challenge on Artificial Intelligence. Prior to her time in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, she led teams in the Cabinet Office, the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, and the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs in policy, strategy and commercial roles.


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