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Faraz Nasir: Aviation Security Review

Author: Matthew Grimley/18 November 2015/Categories: Blog

Since the G4S Aviation Strategic Review of September 2014, the increase in use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) now presents a concerted threat to safety, privacy and security. The evolving capabilities and functions of UAVs have resulted in a series of incidents over the past year ranging from hostile reconnaissance to endangering commercial flights. Meanwhile, ongoing conflicts in the Middle East continue to pose a threat to aviation

 The rise in UAV ownership and competitive costs have opened up the potential for hostile uses.  

 Sensitive facilities, including airports, will need to establish security measures aimed at deterring UAVs from perimeters. The strengthening of legal frameworks is crucial in regulating the use of UAVs, but implementing amendments will take time.   
 Aircraft continue to fly over conflict zones, but current indications are that weapons proliferation in the Middle East is unlikely to threaten commercial aviation. Risk assessments, including of airports, should play a key role in security programmes. 
The industry supply chain is increasingly exposed to cyber-attacks, making increased investment in related security essential. Low oil prices may see some airlines undergo consolidation, with oil-dependent economies experiencing a downturn in passenger traffic. 

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

UAVs are an increasingly significant feature of aviation, now being used by a multitude of industries. Commonly known as “drones”, UAVs are aerial systems that can be remotely controlled for short and long range military purposes through to civil use by media and hobbyists. Hundreds of thousands of UAVs are currently in use across the world.

Civil Aviation

The growing use of small UAVs that can be used and modified by the public has increased significantly in recent months. The US FAA reports that numbers of pilot sightings of small drones have risen markedly from 238 reports in 2014, to more than 650 until August this year. Indeed, UAVs have the potential to be more dangerous to an aircraft than a bird strike, with no real resistance-testing data available on the impact of a 5kg drone hitting an engine. 
Security concerns include the flying of drones near commercial airports and sensitive sites for either hostile reconnaissance or nuisance factors. In January 2015, the flying of UAVs brought air traffic to a standstill at Dubai International Airport (DXB) for almost an hour. Airports are currently limited by the security capability and response they can undertake. The small nature of many UAVs renders measures such as Boeing’s laser weapons systems impractical for an urban or airport environment. As such, airports will remain reliant on effective legislation to offer the requisite security from unwanted 


Hostile Reconnaissance 

The primary threat faced by commercial and public enterprises is the use of small UAVs for hostile reconnaissance. Due to their small size and manoeuvrability, UAVs that are fitted with HD cameras are able to bypass physical perimeters such as fences, thereby opening up remote access to any individual or group in possession of a small UAV.


The threat of UAVs extends beyond conventional security concerns. More destructive is the potential for small explosive devices to be affixed to a UAV. The current generation of small UAVs are limited to carrying around a 1kg payload. However, as technological advances are made, there is scope for heavier advanced visual equipment that could include specialised cameras. Social media footage in recent months has shown attempts to attach hand grenades and small firearms to UAVs. Despite the infancy of this particular type of threat, the pace at which modifications are made by enthusiasts suggests it will become an increasingly important issue in the coming years. 
Geopolitical tensions

Conflict zones

The events of July 2014, which saw the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, placed considerable attention on risks posed to commercial aircraft flying over conflict zones. Since then, the rise of Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, along with its affiliates across the Middle East and North Africa, has raised concerns about military aircraft flights and the proliferation of weapons that could target aircraft without countermeasures. 

Flight paths 

European passenger planes are still flying over conflict areas such as Mali, South Sudan and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. ICAO’s Aviation Security Panel Working Group on Threat and Risk (WGTR) considers the potential for intentional and unintentional long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) attacks to be of low risk due to the lack of evidence of capability in terms of hardware and trained personnel. The risk of an unintentional attack, such as confusing a military target with a civilian aircraft, is also considered low, despite the case of MH17. In October 2015, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published a Safety Information Bulletin (SIB) to inform airspace users that Russian missile launches from the Caspian Sea took place from 6-7 October. The missiles are reported to have crossed Iran and Iraq and into Syria below flight paths typically used by commercial airplanes. 
The volatile security environment in the Middle East means reliable, actionable intelligence and threat analysis is critical to identify potential conflict hotspots before they emerge as a credible threat. Aviation security programmes should be adjusted according to risk assessments, including regular liaison between regulators and airlines to develop risk mitigation measures. Airlines should also consider the voluntary sharing of intelligence.

Airport Security 

The bombing of Russian airliner Metrojet flight 9268 on 31 October also placed increased scrutiny on airport security, particularly in areas vulnerable to terrorism-related activities. While checks and screenings processes are in place, the degree of implementation varies due to fatigue, personnel motivation and equipment. Even those with the greatest budgets, such as the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA), struggle, with a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) test team managing to get through fake bombs and weapons in 67 out of 70 tests across the US. The predictability of airport screening means alternative or varied measures may be required. 

The greater risk, however, is the insider threat. The threat is greatest at airports with limited governance capability in low-income economies, where the ability to effectively screen prospective airport employees is hampered by poor and incomplete intelligence databases. The African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC) notes that security breaches committed at most airports have the direct or indirect involvement of airport staff, including the surveillance of sensitive areas, disclosure of sensitive security information and the bypassing of security checkpoints. Potential threats range from a disgruntled employee to those with nationalist, monetary and ideological motivations. Airlines can make a significant contribution to countering insider security threats through rigorous personnel security practices. However, regulatory agencies, airport authorities and the airlines themselves must continually review their approach. Despite adding to airline operating costs, gaps still exist within airport systems, which could harbour insider security threats ranging from vendors to security personnel.  
Other key areas

Impact of oil prices and recession

Airlines remain under pressure to cut costs and improve efficiencies, with jet fuel typically accounting for 40 to 55 percent of operating expenses. The onset of the fall in international oil prices since 2014 has made commercial airlines used to cheap aviation fuel, with many reaping the financial benefits. Nevertheless, economies dependent on oil revenues are at particular risk, including Russia, where decreased oil revenues and exchange-rate fluctuations are likely to drive significant reductions in international air traffic demand.


The aviation industry remains exposed to a range of cyber security risks, with American Airlines, LOT Polish Airlines, United Airlines and Sabre Corp. all victims of hacking this year.  The close linkages of sectors within the industry mean potential vulnerabilities exist across the board. The use of advanced IT systems in civil aviation operations will continue to expand, covering basic functions such as data collection and processing, through to ground operations and air traffic control, where heavy reliance on the security of IT systems will become critical. Any system failure will cause widespread disruption. Furthermore, cyber-criminals are likely to be interested in credit cards or personal data stored and transmitted by airlines as they are in retail. Developing a common cybersecurity standard followed by industry should be a priority, with rigorous enforcement to promote a robust cyber security culture.

Europe’s Migrant Crisis

The migrant and refugee crisis in Europe is having an impact on logistics, with haulage prices rising amid delays at crossings between the UK and mainland Europe. Increased security along the Schengen border is eroding the thin margins in the sector and is unsustainable. The Dutch Association for Transport and Logistics reports that the cost for its haulers would be USD 670 million a year should border controls be established across the EU and a result in delays of up to one hour in cargo crossings. As such, air freight has become a realistic option for some shippers. However, the potential remains for an impact on global air cargo, given some 30 percent comes from or goes to Europe. The expected increase in air cargo will also put additional pressure on security processes and resources, increasing the possibility of hostile acts.


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