Have you ever wondered about how tight security is in an international airport? What are the checks and measures put in place to ensure that every passenger who boards the plane is clean and free from terrorism agendas?
Let’s talk about somewhere closer to home – Changi Airport. How are the staff trained to ensure that the airport is safe? What are the screening procedures like? What are we allowed and not allowed to bring onboard a flight?
We went behind the scenes and followed a team of aviation security officers from Certis CISCO as they carried out their daily duties. Along the way, we made discoveries about things we never knew of – pre-boarding security screening and checklist, the hierarchy and levels of authorised personnel, checks that we do not see etc – and had queries-of-our-lives answered.
IT IS NOT A ONE-MAN SHOW
It certainly takes a whole big team to carry out the various security checks. But just like every drop of water contributes to the ocean, every man is important and essential for the line of checks.
Each team usually comprises five officers, and one team mends one screening station. In a team, there will be a front loader, an X-ray operator, and manual bag searcher and two friskers (one per gender). Some have 8-hour shifts, but most have 12-hour shifts for 4 continuous days before getting 2 days off. During their shift, they get short breaks in between that usually add up to about 2 hours – depending on the flight schedules for each day.
“THE DAILY GRIND”
The aviation security officers are really more than just the mundane staff standing at checkpoints to confiscate your 250ml Perrier bottles. Each and every officer begins the shift with a briefing on latest updates, and these include new rules put in place, temporary measures put in place for crisis, compliances and complaints.
“Each team usually comprises five officers who will handle security checks for 5-6 flights per day. Some have 8-hour shifts, but most have 12-hour shifts for 4 continuous days before getting 2 days off.”
Every day is a busy one, with many flights taking off from and transiting in Singapore. Before passengers are called to the boarding gate, the team will scan the area for suspicious articles and ensure that it is safe for everyone to enter. The time taken to clear security checks ranges from one to two hours per flight – depending on how full the flight is – and each team is usually scheduled to handle security checks for 5-6 flights per day.
Staying vigilant throughout their shift is not as easy as it sounds. These officers are always high on alert and looking out for potential threats that will endanger the lives of so many in the airport and onboard the flight. Be thankful for these aviation security officers, because without them, we will be closer to terrorists.
THOU SHALT NOT ESCAPE MY (X-RAY’S) EYES
So how do aviation security officers ensure that all passengers who board the plane are clean and free from terrorism agendas? Do you know what you can and cannot bring onboard a flight? What exactly do they look out for?
Suspicious characters, of course. This is a trade secret, but the officers are trained and have developed bionic eyes to identify the oddly shaped items in your bag in the process, so don’t try your luck. No sharp objects are allowed in your hand-carry bags, of course. Commonly confiscated items include scissors, nail clippers, Swiss knife and screwdrivers. God knows why anyone would pack a screwdriver in their hand-carry bag, but please – just don’t do it.
An aviation security officer shared with us the “flying chilli” sauce story, “One day, a female passenger tried to bring in a glass bottle of chili sauce which was more than 100ml in the bag. We politely explained that she can repack the sauce into smaller containers or post it back home via SpeedPost if not we will have to discard the bottle.”
“But no, the lady insisted on bringing the full bottle over and she got increasingly agitated as we tried to reason with her. Then all of a sudden, she just grabbed the bottle of chili sauce and dashed past the security check point. Instinctively, my colleagues at the back rushed to block her from going through. The next thing I know, the bottle of chili sauce was flying past our heads. The lady had thrown the bottle at us. That was close!”
Liquids that exceed 100ml will not be tolerated. Your 200ml water bottle may be half-filled, but that is still not allowed. Because anything more than 100ml has the potential of being explosive.
And if there is anything that has to be confiscated and you insist on keeping it, the aviation security officers will provide the option of sending your items back via speed post – postage charges to be absorbed by you, of course.
HOW TO MAKE YOUR LIFE EASIER WHEN GOING THROUGH SECURITY SCREENINGS?
To speed up the process for both you and the aviation security officers, these are what you should remove before going through the screening: hats, shades, jackets and outerwear of sorts, scarfs, high-cut boots and sneakers. Accessories will potentially ring the alarm, especially metal ones like belt buckles and watches, so it is recommended to have them removed. Empty your pockets too and put all electronic gadgets (mobile phones, tablets, laptops etc) through the X-ray too.
In case you are wondering why laptops in particular have to be taken out from the bags, it is because computing devices have more layers of electronic components and requires a more thorough check to ensure everyone’s safety onboard the plane. So take them out without being asked, rather than start to dig and remove your devices resulting in a need to rescan and henceforth delay your boarding.
THEY ARE ALWAYS UNAPPRECIATED
It’s true. Passengers will always try to find faults with the aviation security officers, argue to death with them, and even malign the officers for abusing their powers to search and “molest” them. But if they are not stringent in the checks, would you be able to board your flight with assurance?
It is a very stressful job for they always have to be on their toes. They go through several tests to qualify as an aviation security officer. Everyone starts off as a frisker. To be promoted to an X-ray operator, they must pass more stringent tests. For officers who are good at what they do, they can become a team leader or even a pier-in-charge who is in charge of managing several teams. Eventually, some of them move on to managerial posts managing 100 to 200 officers.
Aviation officers who are union members also have a feedback channel via Union of Security Employees (USE), which will provide workplace advice and help the staff feedback work-related concerns to management.
The union is in talks with Certis CISCO to place aviation officers on a Progressive Wage Model to provide officers with a career path, training and more productive jobs which will lead to pay increments.
DID YOU KNOW…?
Some aviation security officers are trained in first aid, and are qualified to perform CPR on-site; they are the ones who will resuscitate you should anything happen to you during pre-boarding.
In a dynamic environment like our beloved airport, working over-time is not uncommon due to unforeseen flight delays, and there will always be passengers who only go through clearance at the eleventh hour, resulting in a choked-up schedule for the rest of the day.
“Sometimes we also come across bags with very personal items in them such as adult toys. Both us and the passenger feel ‘malu’ but what to do? We have to maintain our composure and a professional front at all times.”
Handling difficult passengers is also part of the job – all day, every day. There will be ridiculous occurrence of passengers grabbing forbidden items from the screening tray and running through the detector. And then there are business men, aristocratic diplomats and celebrities who are too almighty that they refuse to be frisk-searched, resulting in a delay because a supervisor has to be deployed to the site to explain all the security requirements.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD AVIATION SECURITY OFFICER?
The main challenge faced is to combine service and security. Sounds like a piece of cake? Not really, when passengers are increasingly demanding and unreasonable.
The aviation security officers are assessed based on their punctuality, attendance, daily service and compliments or complaints – if any. An additional monthly performance incentive will be awarded for the ones who are free from complaints and/or have commendation letters.
“I feel very proud to be working here and it totally makes my day when passengers wish me a good day or thank me. Some of the passengers even call me Sir; respect for us, for what we do is priceless in our eyes.”
The next time you catch a flight, pay more attention to this group of people who play a vital role in ensuring a safe environment onboard, and thank them for their service. If you could take a little more time to write them a positive feedback, it would really help them in their career a lot as well.
A little appreciation towards them goes a long way.
This message is part of a ladyironchef x Labour Movement project where we seek to share with you insights on the different initiatives by the Labour Movement to give workers in Singapore better jobs, better pay and better work-life balance.