Air Borders – Protected but porous

Border Management Magazine - March 2019

Porous air borders
Is the human factor making air borders porous?

Phillip Wood MBE, Head of the School of Aviation and Security at Buckinghamshire New University, writes that although technology is a proven border control enabler, those who use it are the greatest disablers of its effectiveness.

While there will always be a moral argument about who is permitted and entitled to cross borders, what credentials they need and criteria that they need to fulfil, border control is a necessity.  If we think about what ‘border control’ means to many, this definition is a good place to begin: 

Border control means measures adopted by a country to regulate and monitor its borders. It depicts a country’s physical demonstration of territorial sovereignty. It regulates the entry and exit of people, animals and goods across a country’s border. It aims at fighting terrorism and detecting the movement of criminals across the borders. In addition, it also regulates both legal and illegal immigration, collects excise taxes, prevents smuggling of illegal and hazardous material such as weapons, drugs, or endangered species, and prevents the spread of human or animal diseases. The degree of strictness at a border control varies depending upon the country and the border concerned. (

That seems to cover most aspects of border control and management. However, it gives a simplistic overview of what is a complicated issue, which becomes much more complicated when aviation, with its flexibility and multiple layers of activity and technology as well as the speed and pace of transit times and the diversity and sheer numbers of air travellers, are factored into the processes and concepts involved.  

Organisations such as ICAO are responsible for – and responsive to – this need to balance protection and permission, saying in their Traveller Identification Programme (TRIP) Guide that the “flow of travellers overwhelmingly benefits States, and as such, Border Control Management (BCM) arrangements should facilitate timely and cost-efficient processing of genuine travellers while simultaneously identifying, managing and mitigating risks, and responding to threats.”

This conflict of needs brings significant challenges, with the aviation sector (and its governance bodies, governments and political influencers) attempting to manage the balance whilst transporting legitimate passengers and freight alongside criminals, smuggled goods and organisms, and those who are not necessarily criminals but who do not meet country entry criteria. How can Aviation balance the ‘need to say no’ with the ‘need to flow’?

Firstly, it is important to understand the diversity and scale of the problem and how airlines and airports can facilitate illicit movement and activity; also, how they can prevent it. 

We are all familiar with the physical barriers in place at both ends of the passenger journey; and with the varying levels of checks and pre-checks that are carried out to identify that we are who we say we are, and that what we are carrying is legitimate, or legitimately ours.  We have scanning, biometrics, personnel detection and surveillance systems and chemical trace detection. Our passports are checked against databases, manifests and other waypoints, ticketing and baggage movement are automated and supported by technology throughout; from passenger lists to our smart luggage tags.  

But still air borders can be porous. The problem that the US has recognised and dealt with in its own way is that despite the types of regulation and governance that do work being put in place at their airports; those in sending countries may be less reliable – so they push their border controls out to those countries and impose their own checks there.  

It’s a little ‘Roman Empire’; but if we want to travel to the US for work and leisure, that’s the arrangement in place. These hard measures are designed to manage the issue, and it is fair to say that by and large they are effective. In terms of other integrated approaches, the ICAO TRIP guidance offers potential solutions – or at least concepts for providing them, based on its five interlinked elements:

Chart: ICAO’s five interlinked elements. Note; MRTD = Machine Readable Travel Documents. Source: ICAO TRIP Guide.

These are well thought-out components of a strong identification management ‘ecosystem’, and ICAO’s guide explains them carefully and in detail. Importantly, ICAO also recognises and clearly emphasises the disparity in capabilities across national borders and infrastructures; and the need to factor that limitation into any assumptions or misconceptions about the security or otherwise of a border control system and workflow. 

Because of that, the ICAO TRIP Guide is a well thought out, detailed document and recommended for those who need to know more about the principles and limitations of air travel and border controls.  

Back in the US, where guides are translated into measures, layers of capability and detection are further imposed by the DHS, TSA and organisations such as the Orwellian sounding Office of Biometric Identity Management (OBIM), whose role (according to its website) is to:

protect the nation by providing biometric identification services that help federal, state, and local government decision makers accurately identify the people they encounter and determine whether those people pose a risk to the United States. OBIM supplies the technology for collecting and storing biometric data, provides analysis, updates its watchlist, and ensures the integrity of the data.

However, the reality of security management in the context of border controls, despite the multiple technologies and processes that have been developed to manage the flexibility, reach and scale of the aviation challenge, differs from the concept. 

The main problem with any security system, regardless of its sector or application, is the people who interact with it. Poorly trained, lazy, overworked and overwhelmed staff who face never-ending cohorts of fast moving distracted, and sometimes aggressive legitimate passengers will always have the potential for failure – and security gaps will appear.  

In most cases, where legitimate passengers either purposely or by omission do get through, the consequences may be minimal. However, a determined and well-organised criminal, terrorist or illegal immigrant will scan, identify and bypass such touchpoints of human weakness – and the consequences have the potential to be quite significant. 

And the errors can be straightforward. The most effective measures cannot stop those overburdened airport staff from making occasional or repeated mistakes. As an example, according to a 2018 UK Home Office report (quoted in Airport Technology):

…over 11,000 travellers have unintentionally avoided UK border checks between 2013 and 2017 due to a lack of clear directions…there has been a 70% increase in the number of passengers who were misdirected, from 1,364 in 2016 to 2,328 in 2017. Further statistics from a Freedom of Information request show that the Border Force recorded 2,394, 2,665 and 2,278 misdirected passengers in 2013, 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Despite Home Office assurances of follow up and measures to deal with the problem, this was simply about people being sent in the wrong direction and bypassing security without even knowing about it. No ICAO guide can stop that.

So, at first glance we can look at aviation and border control and consider that we have made significant strides and advances in the face of dynamic, emerging and smart threats in a changing world. Technology is the greatest single enabler of the basis for a multi-layered and wide-ranging security management system. Conversely, those who use it are the greatest disablers of its effectiveness.  

And, really, at this stage we are really only thinking about the ‘good guys’. Once we begin to factor in the legitimate issues of human rights and privacy and the sheer inventiveness and undoubted determination of those who wish to act illegally or do harm to society, the balance of power and advantage begins to shift, which on the balance of probabilities means that on occasion, real damage can be the result.

Phillip Wood is the Head of the School of Aviation and Security at Buckinghamshire New University. His background includes military service in various roles and the delivery and management of corporate resilience programmes to industry. His book “Resilient Thinking; Protecting Organisations in the 21st Century” (2012) addresses issues related to human behaviours and their effects on effective resilience planning and response. Phil holds an MSc in security and risk management from the University of Leicester and is a Chartered Security Professional and Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 2000.

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