Outlook for the aviation security services sector in Saudi Arabia

Security is a very crucial matter and it is top of the agenda for all governments, security companies and airport commissions because it deals with people and with their lives. Needless to say every country’s government or security agencies put the highest significance and interest in developing and promoting this business.

Interview with Yousuf A. Wali, President of Arabian Falcons Aviation Services

Yousuf A. Wali, President of Arabian Falcons Aviation Services

What is the outlook for the aviation security services sector in Saudi Arabia? There are massive investments in airports and also the air traffic is growing here so what is the outlook for the security services?

Security is a very crucial matter and it is top of the agenda for all governments, security companies and airport commissions because it deals with people and with their lives. Needless to say every country’s government or security agencies put the highest significance and interest in developing and promoting this business. In Saudi Arabia as you might know, the civil aviation directorate or commission has declared so to speak the privatisation of all 27 airports now. It is on the move, this issue is on the move now for the government and for the private sector.

There are certain issues that they have to address to promote this business because the airport business is not only facilitation. We don’t want to look at airports as military bases for people to get in and out, actually from a psychological point of view there are lots of people who feel uneasy when they travel. They need to see a good environment at airports with people that can deal with them and an easy flow of passengers and facilitation. Generally speaking this security issue is not a small business, it is not a business that you promote according to your own capabilities but it is based on certain international standards and criteria that are issued and stipulated by three organisations in the world.

One is ICAO which is part of the United Nations and based in Montreal. The other is IATA which has to do with airlines whilst ICAO has to do with governments. Then there is the ACI, the Airports Council International. These three organisations regulate for the industry. They put out all of the policies, procedures, instructions, and guidance for airports, passengers and airlines. I feel these three organisations still have to put out more about the industry because we are facing terrorist attacks all over now. You cannot deal with each passenger in a very suspicious manner or consider him a suspect.

 That is not the right way. However as you can see from incidents in France or Brussels, people arrive to the airport in groups and they look like normal passengers even with documents and that is just enough to get a bomb to the terminal before you even get to security and are searched. They just have to get to the terminal with their trolley and leave a bag with a bomb there and then leave. They will cause a catastrophe for the airlines, the government and the airport. Nowadays you need a lot of security systems to watch these people and monitor the movement of people in and out of airports or terminals.

Even then you need a sort of pre-check on these people before they reach the airport because maybe at the end of the day you can’t deal with 50,000 passengers moving around the terminals or the departure gates; it is a very difficult job. Nowadays they have the fingerprints requirement, they have what we call the biometric information and there are still a lot of new policies on the way. The outlook for this business is great and I think that every individual government has to promote and set up policies and procedures for airport security in order to allow passengers a safe journey. We have the problem that aviation is not a destination; it is a complete journey that has a lot of pros and cons that we have to control.

Let’s talk about privatisation and investment opportunities in Saudi Arabia.

You know that there is a new head of the civil aviation commission in Saudi Arabia. He has a lot of plans and vision for this industry. He has already declared that he will move towards privatisation. He has already signed three contracts for the three international airports with international companies like Changi or Fraport. We have 27 airports in Saudi Arabia and last month Mr Hamdan, the head of civil aviation, made a very strong statement by saying that next year they will not depend on government subsidies anymore; they will finance themselves.

This shows that he is very keen and is going very fast in his plan for privatisation. I believe there are a lot of business opportunities here at airports because airports are just like small cities.

There are airlines, restaurants, car rentals, hotels, entertainment programs etc. so they need a lot of developed work according to international standards or according to the latest state of art facilities prevailing at airports. In Saudi Arabia we still have a lot to do because we are new in this business.

All the 27 airports are still under the government umbrella. To go private you need to bring international companies in to run the airports, and you need to have very advanced contracts for ground equipment, catering, cargo, ramp services, terminal services etc. These are totally different from what we have now where everything is run by the government or even civil aviation directorate itself. In fact, the aviation industry constitutes about 30% of the GDP. To give an example, in Spain you have more than 62 million passengers or tourists coming every year so it is a big industry for the economy not only for the airports but for the whole economy. If we want to adopt this policy, we have to go international; we have to bring in international companies because we cannot defend ourselves at this stage as we don’t have the experience to do it.

I can say that very confidently. I have been in the industry for the last 30 years as Head of Security in Saudi Arabia Airlines and we have been dealing with the civil aviation directorate, they are like any other government department or agency working under strict regulations or red tape. If you want to go privatised, you need to have a new vision as to how you can turn an airport into a profit centre for both the government and the new companies that will take over. I see that there are a lot of opportunities, even in security, which used to be under the government umbrella but now even the government has changed its mind on that and they believe that they cannot run everything.

They have other things to take care of rather than passenger screening at airports or hand luggage searches etc. In Europe and in some countries in the Far East and in the US, airport security is privatised yet they work under the government umbrella. You can find civilian people searching passengers but you still find an airport security from the government supervising that. This is the way it should be because civilians are more capable to be trained for x-ray for example, which is a very advanced and sophisticated industry, you cannot bring military people or police people and make them do it, and they need a lot of training to do with airport security. Again, I believe the opportunities are there in all aspects of the airport industry including security.

What should people be aware of regarding security?

The airport security industry is a very sophisticated one. It is unlike government security or public security. Terrorists do not use grenades or firearms to get to the aircraft. They use very sophisticated bombs that are disguised. They deal with people inside the airport to smuggle these things in. It needs a very careful process of security measures all over the airport. In other words we have what I call the “security circle”. It is just like a chain with so many links at the airport and each one of them has to be tight and secure. Otherwise there is no use in guarding the front door but ignoring the back one.

We don’t just have one side to it which is passenger screening or baggage search, at the airport we also have the catering for example which is a special unit from the ramp side that does all the kitchen work and takes the food to the aircraft, thus they require their own security. We have the cargo aspect also. There is also the mail. Thus we have other services within the ramp side of the airport to cover. There is also the duty free area. Each one of these areas has to have its own security measures and training for the staff to be fully aware of what they do when they come to their shift in the morning and start working. They have to be educated, trained and aware of the latest techniques that terrorists have used even yesterday; the information has to be transferred immediately to all other airports. In fact there is a system called CBT, computer based training, this system looks at how to educate and train the screeners at the airports i.e. the passenger and baggage screeners.

They sit in an English language lab and they start seeing all forms of firearms, bombs, explosives or radioactive material etc. that can be smuggled in a normal passenger bag. Based on this, all images all over the world are sent to those countries who are members of this sort of commission and they start training their own people at the airports at the beginning of each shift. They need to be aware because each one of them will go down and search 500 or 800 bags per hour. The x-ray industry also has advanced in the last 3 decades. It used to be just a normal x-ray, then we got 3D x-ray, then we have the new x-rays that can tell you if there is a bomb or not in the bag. It depends on the atomic number of each object in the bag. It analyses the atomic number of whatever I carry in my bag and then it goes to the computer for matching, the computer also has the atomic number of all sorts of explosives in the world.

If a match is made, then you have to stop that bag and start a hand search. You don’t just depend on the machine. We need to recruit qualified people, to bring in good x-ray machines, to train our people and make them aware of the latest techniques and terrorist ways of smuggling explosives and firearms into the aircraft cabin. There are a lot of threats that face us in the aviation security industry. Unless we coordinate as one unit between governments and the private sector, I don’t think we can succeed.

The whole world has to cooperate with each other. It is no longer to do with state sovereignty. We used to say we cannot exchange security information with other countries because we felt that it was very confidential. Nowadays, it is no longer confidential because the aircraft itself is an international flying unit that might have Saudis, Americans, British or other nationalities aboard. Once a crisis happens on an aircraft you will find the manufacturer coming, as well as the insurance company, the governments involved, and all other pilot organisations coming and starting to question the country regarding the security in place before that flight took off. In other words we are in one unit, one airport, one aircraft because the security measures that can be applied here in any Saudi airport are the same measures that should be applied in any advanced country.

This is the way it has to be done. We have to exchange information with each other. We have to cooperate in training and security awareness programs. We should not feel bad about sharing our experience with other countries even though we might not have good political relationships with them. Leave the politics aside; we are talking about people´s lives. We have to protect them. Once we accept that they buy our ticket, and they trust us, we should offer them the best security measures to get them safely from point A to point B. We used to face a lot of difficulties in exchanging information.

I used to be the Head of the GCC Security Committee for about 8 years, this was the vital issue that we used to emphasise, that whatever information you have, you should immediately transfer it onwards because there is very little time to check the manifest of a flight. It is a matter of minutes to have the information if a terrorist is boarding that flight. I think that in the European Community they have reached the conclusion that they have to increase their cooperation regarding information exchange and technology.

When you are dealing with a customer, what are the steps that you follow in your consultancy? What are the services that you offer? What makes you different from other international consultants?

Thankfully I have accumulated 35 years of experience in the airline industry. Out of which 30 years were in aviation security. I retired as the Head of Security of Saudi Airlines. At Arabian Falcons Aviation Services (AFAS), we offer security consulting, training, and security programs. New airlines coming to the Saudi market unlike before now have to submit a security program to the civil aviation commission otherwise they will not be allowed to operate. This security program has to be issued from an authorised security company. We are authorised by IATA as we are a member and I hold a PhD in aviation security.

Our business regarding the new airlines coming to the Saudi market is to write the security program for them. We have to prove that they have a good security structure, using a good security company with a head that is trained in this area, that they have good equipment and good communication. Then we have to check that they have good security measures in place whether in their country or on the flights that come to Saudi Arabia. Before they depart from here, there are also certain security measures that are to be carried out by the air crew within the aircrafts.

They cannot depend just on the airport security. This is part of the inside story that one has to mention, it is an open secret, part of the security. We request our air crew to carry out an aircraft search before passengers board the aircraft. We check the galley, under the seats, the over-racks, the whole cabin to make sure that there is no strange object put there by any labourer or cleaner because they are the inside ones that could be doing that. We do this. Part of the crew goes down to the baggage compartment and the cargo compartment and they do the same search before any baggage or cargo is loaded onto the aircraft. Any airline or new company operating in Saudi Arabia, whether chartered or scheduled, has to submit a security program and this is actually what we do at AFAS. We set up and write a manual that is about 250 pages regarding all the security aspects of that company, the airports in the foreign country and our country and then we submit it to the Saudi civil aviation commission upon which they issue a license.

The other thing we do is security training. We are dealing with a very well-known British company licensed by the department of transport in Britain and also licensed by IATA to give security training. We give some training to our Saudi civil aviation, but we still need more and more because there are 27 airports with lots of staff and ongoing recruitment so it is a continuous process with people coming and going in this industry so we need training all the time. The other thing that we also do is security consulting for any company that requires reporting or that requires that we carry out security studies on how to develop or flourish in certain areas. In general, these are the three things that we do at AFAS. We are representing certain American and British companies and also a German company. We are on the move, I cannot claim that we are very big in the country but we are on the move.

What are the main threats that exist in Saudi Arabia?

Security threats are all over the world now. It is not directed towards a certain country as such, terrorist attacks are everywhere. Saudi Arabia has declared that they want to establish an international centre to fight terrorism in Riyadh.

This was called for by the late King Abdullah but for some reasons it didn’t go ahead because it had to be blessed by the United Nations and other countries. It is an ongoing process by each country. There is no objection to come together in one place and establish an international centre to fight terrorism which is for the benefit of all. Here, there is no competition; there is cooperation in this business. I believe there are a lot of security threats facing the aviation industry and consequently facing governments and countries. We have to cooperate by launching security awareness programs to passengers, airline staff and to airport staff. This should be an ongoing process. It is not a matter of a one-time course. In my opinion I believe security training is a long term plan.

It is not a course you take to get more information just once. When we give security training we teach airport staff that this is an IATA or an international security course related to their job. We tell them that when they go to their job in the morning they have to do 1, 2, 3 steps… I also think we need more awareness programs for passengers. They are our eyes on the ground because security cannot be in each and every corner of the airport. Passengers have to give us a hand watching people, watching if anyone leaves their bags under a seat for example, people who might be talking about security matters etc. I believe it should be an international cooperative effort for training. In order to protect passengers and airport property, governments have to offer training.

I believe that a small investment in aviation security can save the industry millions of dollars. At the end of the day they could add a little percentage to airport landing fees or any other charges that they take from passengers and direct it towards training. That is why I stress this issue, because training is not getting the proper attention and awareness in governments or even in the private sector.

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