9.3 – Transport Safety and Security

Authors: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue and Dr. Brian Slack

Safety and security issues concern both transportation modes and terminals that can be either a target for terrorism, a vector to conduct illegal activities, or even a form of warfare.

1. A New Context in Transport Security

While issues of safety and security have regularly preoccupied transport planners and managers, it is only recently that physical security has become an overriding issue. Over this, an important nuance must be provided between criminal activities and terrorism. While both seek to exploit the security weaknesses of transportation, they do so for very different reasons. Terrorism is a symbolic activity seeking forms of destruction and disruption to coerce a political, ideological, or religious agenda. In this context, transportation is mostly a target. Criminal activities seek an economic return from illegal transactions such as drugs, weapons, piracy, and illegal immigration. In this context, transportation is mostly a vector for illicit transactions. Concerns were already being raised in the past. Still, the tragic events of 9/11 thrust the issue of physical security into the public domain as never before and set in motion responses that have reshaped transportation in unforeseen ways. In addition, threats to health, such as the spread of pandemics, present significant challenges to transport planning and operations, as the COVID-19 pandemic underlined.

As locations where passengers and freight are assembled and dispersed, terminals have particularly been a focus of concern about security and safety. Because railway stations and airports are some of the most densely populated sites anywhere, crowd control and safety have been issues that have preoccupied managers for a long time. Access is monitored and controlled, and movements are channeled along pathways that provide safe access to and from platforms and gates. In the freight industry, security concerns have been directed toward worker safety and theft. Traditionally, freight terminals have been dangerous workplaces. With heavy goods being moved around yards and loaded onto vehicles using large mobile machines or manually, accidents were systemic. Significant improvements have been made over the years, through worker education and better organization of operations, but freight terminals are still comparatively hazardous.

The issue of theft has been one of the most severe problems confronting all types of freight terminals, especially where high-value goods are being handled. Docks have particularly been seen as places where organized crime has established control over local labor unions, particularly in the first half of the 20th century. With containerization, theft at port terminals declined substantially as the contents of containers remained hidden from those handling them. Further, access to freight terminals and distribution centers has been increasingly restricted, with workers screening and the deployment of security personnel helping control thefts. Most cargo thefts now occur during transit and when vehicles are parked in rest areas or streets. Thefts occurring in warehouses and terminals are less common but still significant.

The most visible emerging form of security threat is cybersecurity, to which transportation infrastructures and organizations are particularly vulnerable. The growth in information technologies and their associated networks has opened new forms of vulnerability as control and management systems can be remotely accessed. This has resulted in complex, interconnected corporate information networks that can be hacked and disrupted. There is a wide variety of reasons behind cyberattacks, but financial gains remain the main objective. In 2017, malware named NotPetya was released from the hacked servers of a Ukrainian software firm servicing a management program used by some of the world’s largest corporations, causing an estimated USD 10 billion in damage. Transportation and logistics firms such as Maersk and TNT were severely disrupted. In some cases, terminals and distribution centers were forced to cease operations because of inoperable computers.

The foundation of transport security includes several dimensions and potential measures:

  • Dimensions. Particularly concerning the integrity of the passengers or cargo, the route, and the information systems (IT security) managing the transport chain.
  • Measures. The set of procedures that can be implemented to maintain the integrity of the passengers or cargo, namely inspections, the security of facilities and personnel, as well as of the data and the supporting cybersecurity measures.

The expected outcomes of these measures include:

  • Reduced risk of travel or trade disruptions in response to security threats.
  • Improved security against theft and cargo diversion, with reductions in direct losses (cargo and sometimes the vehicle) and indirect costs (e.g. higher insurance premiums).
  • Improved security against illegal transport of passengers and freight such as counterfeits, narcotics, weapons, and migrants.
  • Improved reliance on information systems supporting the complex transactions generated by transport activities.
  • Reduced risk of evasion of duties and taxes.
  • Increased confidence in the international trading system by current and potential shippers of goods.
  • Improved screening process (cost and time) and simplified procedures.

Still, despite the qualitative benefits, the setting and implementation of security measures come at a cost that must be assumed by the shippers and, eventually, by the consumers or the passengers. Airport security fees have become a standard component of airfares. It has been estimated that an increase of 1% in the costs of trading internationally would cause a decrease in trade flows in the range of 2 to 3%. Therefore, security-based measures could increase total costs between 1% and 3%, having a negative impact on international trade. Additionally, the impacts are not uniformly assumed as developing economies, particularly export-oriented economies, tend to have higher transport costs. A major goal is, therefore, to comply with security measures in the most cost-effective way.

2. Physical Security of Passengers

Airports have been the focus of security concerns for many decades. High-jacking aircraft came to the fore in the 1970s when terrorist groups in the Middle East exploited the lack of security to commandeer planes for ransom and publicity. Refugees fleeing dictatorships also found taking over aircraft a possible route to freedom. In response, the airline industry and the international regulatory body, ICAO, established screening procedures for passengers and luggage. This process seems to have worked in the short run with reductions in hijackings. However, terrorists changed their tactics by placing bombs in unaccompanied luggage and packages. The Air India crash off Ireland in 1985, the Lockerbie, Scotland, and the crash of Pan Am 103 in 1988 are illustrative. Another unusual issue is the deliberate crash of a flight by pilots committing suicide. In 2015, Germanwings 9525 was crashed by its co-pilot in the French Alps. In the prior year, Malaysia Airlines 370 crashed in the Indian Ocean allegedly through a similar cause. Still, air travel remains the safest transportation mode, with fatalities steadily decreasing over the years.

The growth in passenger traffic and the development of the hub and spoke networks greatly strained the security process. There were wide disparities in the effectiveness of passenger screening at different airports. Because passengers were routed by hubs, the number of passengers in transit through the hub airports grew significantly. Concerns were being raised, but the costs of improving screening and the need to process ever-larger numbers of passengers and maintain flight schedules caused most carriers to oppose tighter security measures.

The situation was changed irrevocably by the events of September 11, 2001. The US government created the Department of Homeland Security, which established a Transportation Security Authority (TSA) to oversee the imposition of strict new security measures on the industry. Security can now account for between 20 and 30% of the operating costs of an airport. Security involves many steps, from restricting access to airport facilities, fortifying cockpits, and setting no-fly lists, to the more extensive security screening of passengers and their luggage. Screening includes restrictions on what can be personally carried in airplanes, such as gels and liquids. For foreign nationals, inspection employs biometric identification, which at present involves checking fingerprints and facial pattern recognition, but retinal scans may be implemented in the future.

A new system, the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS II), was introduced. It required more personal information from travelers when they book their flights, which is used to provide a risk assessment of each passenger. Passengers considered to be high risk were further screened. However, this program was canceled in 2004, mostly because it created too many false positives. It was replaced by the Secure Flight program working under similar principles but is entirely managed by the TSA. From 2009, all flights originating, bound to, or flying over the United States, had their list of passengers cross-referenced by a central no-fly list managed by the TSA. To further focus on screening procedures, trusted traveler programs were introduced in which individuals who have volunteered information such as fingerprinting and background checks can undergo an expedited security procedure involving customs clearance. For instance, the Global Entry program that began in 2008 allows US citizens and permanent residents as well as citizens of 14 countries (e.g. Canada, South Korea, Netherlands, UK) who have submitted to an interview and background check to use fast processing lanes and kiosks at the majority of US ports of entry. Using kiosks has been expanded through customs, allowing passengers to have their documentation scanned and photos taken automatically, reducing processing time.

The imposition of these measures has come at a considerable cost, estimated to be more than $7.4 billion annually by IATA in 2018. A significant factor has been the screening of passengers with the hiring and training of a workforce, the purchase of improved screening machines, and the re-designing of airport security procedures. More space within transport terminals is required to handle security procedures, including inspection areas and waiting lines. Further, aircraft design and operations have been changed, including the introduction of reinforced cabin doors. These measures also impacted passenger throughput, with an estimated 5% decline attributed to security measures. Clearing security has become the most important source of delays in the passenger boarding process. Passengers are expected to arrive 2 hours before departure at the terminal to clear security. It is therefore not surprising that there has been a modal shift to the road (and to some extent rail where services are available) for air travel involving shorter distances (500 km or less). This shift has been linked with additional road fatalities, an unintended consequence of additional security measures.

Security issues have had a negative effect on the air transport industry as costs increased with delays and inconveniences to passengers increasing as well. However, these delays and inconveniences are now considered part of contemporary air travel, with passengers accustomed to security requirements. Further, airports have developed effective procedures, such as multiple security lanes and high throughput scanning, to speed up the process. The burden imposed by security and customs procedures at major ports of entry has also incited the expansion of customs pre-clearance programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought forward a new dimension to passenger transportation security: epidemiological security. This is particularly the case for high-density forms of passenger transportation such as public transit, cruise shipping, and air travel. During the pandemic, people were reluctant to use such modes of transportation because of the perceived risks of being infected. Further, many countries initially prevented the entry of foreign residents and later imposed mandates related to vaccination and testing to be allowed entry. Each mode can be associated with an epidemiological risk that needs to be mitigated. For air transportation, this can involve screening passengers and the ongoing disinfection of facilities such as waiting areas and planes between flights. The outcome is additional costs and a decrease in the performance of air travel because of longer turnovers.

3. Freight Security

Security in the freight industry has always been a major problem. Illegal immigrants, drug smuggling, customs duty evasion, piracy, and the deployment of sub-standard vehicles (higher propensity to accidents) have been some of the most important concerns. In light of the emergence of global supply chains, the emphasis on freight transport security is gradually shifting into a more comprehensive but complex approach. However, as in the air passenger business, the events of 9/11 highlighted a new set of security issues. The scale and scope of these problems with freight are of an even greater magnitude. The less-regulated and international dimensions of the shipping industry, in particular, have made it vulnerable to security breaches.

A large number of ports, the vast fleet of global shipping and the range of products carried in vessels, and the difficulty of detection have made the issue of security in shipping an extremely difficult one to address. For ports, vulnerabilities (unauthorized access to cargo and facilities) can be exploited from the land side as well as on the maritime side. The container, which has facilitated globalization, makes it extremely difficult to identify illicit and dangerous cargoes. In the absence of scanners that can scan the entire box, manual inspection becomes time-consuming and virtually impossible, considering the large volumes involved. Hubbing compounds the problem, as large numbers of containers are required to be handled with minimum delays and inconvenience.

In the United States, the response was to enact the Maritime Transportation and Security Act in 2002. The International Maritime Organization (IMO) adopted the essential elements of this legislation as the International Ship and Port Security Code (ISPS), which began to be implemented in 2004. There are three important features of these interventions:

  1. An Automated Identity System (AIS) is required for all vessels between 300 and 50,000 dwt. It requires vessels to have a permanently marked and visible identity number, and there must be a record maintained of its flag, port of registry, and address of the registered owner.
  2. Each port must undertake a security assessment. This involves an assessment of its assets and facilities and an assessment of the effects of damages that might be caused. The port must then evaluate the risks and identify its weaknesses in features such as physical security, communication systems, and utilities.
  3. All cargoes destined for the United States must receive customs clearance before the departure of the ship. Besides, biometric identification for seafarers was implemented and maintained in national databases.

The ISPS code has been implemented in ports worldwide as, without certification, a port would have difficulty trading with the United States. Securing sites, undertaking risk assessments, and monitoring ships represent additional costs without commercial return. US ports have been able to tap funding from the Department of Homeland Security, but foreign ports must comply or risk the loss of business. In 2008, legislation in the United States required that all containers being shipped to the United States undergo screening. Foreign ports were expected to purchase expensive scanning equipment and undertake to screen all US-bound containers, regardless of the degree of security threat. This is a further financial and operational complication foreign ports must contend with.

Like its passenger counterpart, the airline freight industry faces stringent security requirements. Since 2010, a TSA regulation has required screening all cargo carried by air within the United States or internationally before loading. The Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) forces airlines, freight forwarders, and shippers to assume the costs of these security measures to establish a secure air freight transport chain. The measure imposed additional costs, delays, and disruptions, undermining the operational effectiveness of air cargo. Still, the air freight industry has adapted to these measures. Security has become an additional element in determining competitive advantage and part of the cost of doing business that carriers and terminal operators are contending with.

Related Topics


  • Federal Highway Administration (2018) Vulnerability Assessment and Adaptation Framework, 3rd Edition, FHWA-HEP-18-020.
  • Gillen, D. and W.G. Morrison (2015) “Aviation Security: Costing, Pricing, Finance and Performance”, Journal of Air Transport Management, Vol. 48, pp. 1-12.
  • OECD (2011) Future Global Shock – Improving Risk Governance, Paris: OECD Publishing.
  • Sivak, M. and M.J. Flannagan (2004) “Consequences for Road Traffic Fatalities of the Reduction in Flying Following September 11, 2001”, Transportation Research E, Vol. 7, pp. 301-305.
  • Transportation Research Board (2006) Critical Issues in Transportation, Washington, DC: The National Academies.
  • World Economic Forum (2012) New Models for Addressing Supply Chain and Transport Risk.