Securing critical infrastructure: A view from the top

Hans van Pelt explains why people are the critical factor when it comes to staffing airport security points. 

How can we secure one of our nation’s most critical infrastructures: airports? Hans van Pelt, Director and Principal at Affairs of State, says staffing and technology are priorities – without selecting the right people and tech solutions, you can’t create a seamless and secure experience for travellers.


What are some of the challenges that airports are currently facing, particularly now that things are starting to move again?

There are many. If I had to summarise them down to a few, confidence has never been this low – just in the ability to travel, let alone actually doing it. Clearly, the processes have changed and there’s a concern for safety and health at levels we’ve never seen before. Airlines, airports and people have been really impacted, which comes to the second big challenge: capability.

There are so many people working around an airport environment who, multiple times throughout the pandemic period, have been stood down. As an industry, aviation, travel, hospitality – we’ve pretty much been on the nose. Whereas before you’d have long lines of people wanting to work in those industries, all of a sudden there were far greater and more secure opportunities to go elsewhere. And with the migration tap turned off, with the border shut, a lot of that has happened.

So one of the real challenges through it all has been not just restructuring, but ensuring the capability is there when stuff does rebound and things do open up again. You need to still have a team of people on the ground, people who are skilled, experienced and secure, and who can turn around an aircraft or work through the airport precinct in any number of roles. Equally, you need to make sure the customer experience is what people expect or better. The last thing you want is people to have a negative travelling experience.

It goes well beyond airports and airlines. It’s carried over to destinations too. I live in Tassie and in Melbourne, and it was difficult talking to people in the Apple Isle where you weren’t really that welcome. “Thanks very much, we were doing okay with the border shut.” Yet such a large part of their gross state product is built around tourism, travel, education and hospitality. You can’t keep pretending that isn’t required long term. We’re starting to see the results of this capability issue now, with so many businesses not being able to open fully, not having the right skills and experience within their business because they’ve lost key people to other industries. That’s pretty important when you’re talking about security and checkpoints and everything that happens on the tarmac around an airplane coming in and out.

When I flew through Sydney Airport recently, I couldn’t believe how quiet it was despite being such a large international destination. In the context of that stop-start nature you just mentioned, do you think we’ve lost some of the operational maturity in airports? How do we go about regaining that security and some of those really critical disciplines that are required to secure and operate something like an airport?

If you’re talking about leaving Sydney International Airport in December, that’s one of the busiest months of the year for obvious reasons. Right now, a large chunk of the usual traffic from an inbound-tourism perspective simply isn’t there, and it’s going to take a long time to come back. You’ve got airlines overseas that are much smaller now than they were going into COVID-19 because they’ve been disrupted so much. There’s also this horrible perception out there that Australia could close its borders anytime. That even if you land here, you can’t go through the country because there are state borders.

That perception is going to take some time to actually go away. The stuff with Novak Djokovic hasn’t exactly helped, as far as an image perspective goes, and that all comes down to the confidence challenge. The major airports have got hundreds of companies that are operating in their precincts. You’re the airport, but you’re also the landlord. You’re the operator of many different things. The staff through all of that and the confidence of those businesses to invest in things like stock in an international terminal – they can’t get a return. They’re not doing it. Those companies might be gone, those doors might be shut because the rental agreements and the rental relief that the airport provided simply wasn’t enough over the length of time it has taken for those businesses to survive. There’s some incredibly sad stories in all of this.

To answer your question about the airports and the airlines, there is much investment that has gone into retaining a base capability so you can open your security points and operate to a schedule. But that constantly gets challenged. The disruptions we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the stand-down request, the explosion in case numbers and the isolation requests – luckily, they’re not representing a disease burden to any great degree, and we’re all holding onto the fact that we want to open up and that this is just a transitional phase. But the reality is we’re going to have to, because that capability gets continuously stretched and, quite frankly, government conservatism in Australia has actually led to much of the loss of confidence and the length of time it will take for us to come back.

It’s not going to be quick. It will be years before you see an international inbound visitor economy coming back into Australia. It will be a long time before we get domestic back fully, and capability is a big part of that.

One of the biggest challenges we’ve seen across the industry, even before the pandemic, is multiple access cards. Even domestic crews flying from airport to airport all need a deck of cards to get into restricted and secure areas. But having the ASIC (Aviation Security Identification Card), which is also the credential and the authentication method that operates across the Australian infrastructure ubiquitously – that’s a pretty interesting concept that is gaining more traction. There’s an appetite for that idea, especially because there’s an opportunity to reset and do things more efficiently.

There’s a number of different processes as to how that actually works at different airports in relation to an ASIC or other processes. As the industry looks to rebound, it will be looking back at that ASIC utilisation. Whether it’s an airport or an airline, it’s resource allocation. The simple reality of an aeroplane turn is that you want it done in a certain amount of time. That’s much harder if you’re escorting people or you’ve got more people out there or you’ve lost a better capability.

The industry needs to go back to its previous numbers because that utilisation is actually part of the driver behind further growth, behind viability, behind sustainability and just being more effective. We’ve had a bit of a holiday from that over the past couple of years because movements have been so infrequent and so reduced.

The other part now is you’ve got airports that have been either waiting for, or using the opportunity, to do a lot of infrastructure-type development from an airside perspective. This isn’t limited by any means to aviation, but anything that is done airside requires people to escort and have clearances and go through the whole security process. There’s an opportunity to work with businesses operating in an airport precinct, around an airport precinct or under contract in the airport precinct, where biometrics can generate greater efficiencies.

A lot of the conversations we’ve had over the past year or so have touched on logistics, supply chains and considerations around the impact of COVID on the industry. What are your thoughts on how aviation can start upscaling and getting ready, capacity-wise, to operate in a really interactive economy again?

You could apply that to a number of areas. Take the example of a friend’s company – he’s got hundreds of people working for him in food production across a number of locations. He’s probably down about 20% of his workforce currently. A number of people have had to be stood down because they’re not vaccinated, and he’s probably got another hundred-plus roles that he can’t fill because he can’t find the right people. Clearly, that has an impact on the business. It has an impact throughout the supply chain.

Whether it’s in production, distribution or that critical delivery phase, so many people are struggling now trying to get products to an end destination. A simple identity card can do so many things that can then feed into optimisation engines to get these supply chains back up and running to a point where they become effective again – a simple track-and-trace of where people are, who’s doing what, as well as a system that links a vaccination back to a control point or back to an operator.

Even if you open the migration door today and hundreds of thousands of people come in over the next 12 to 18 months to fill jobs that we are currently struggling to fill, that’s an awful lot of new people. It’s an awful lot of skills, an awful lot of training and an awful lot of management – your biometric solution will be ideal in helping with that.

Want more insight into the world of security, identity access management, biometrics and more? Get your fix with the IDentity Today podcast, hosted by Daltrey CEO Blair Crawford. Listen via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app.