The forgotten threat to the aviation industry

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A recent article in British newspaper The Economist highlighted that airport security needs to evolve. Instead of focusing on the threatening items themselves, attention should shift to those who intend to perpetrate these actions. But where, how and what should airlines focus on when seeking to identify potential human threat? One of the biggest threats to the aviation industry lies within. Airports spend large sums of money on physical security – metal detectors and body scanners for passengers – yet often forget about the damage their employees can cause.

It is costly to the aviation industry to have criminal and vengeful employees in their company. Since 2002, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has had to sack over 500 officers for stealing from airline passengers. It is estimated that the annual cost of theft to an airline equates to £30m (US$43m). In December 2014, 153 guns were smuggled over 20 flights by two Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport baggage attendees.

Fortunately, the proportion of applicants with criminal intentions can be reduced using a more rigorous selection criteria. Some individuals are rotten eggs; these bad apples seek employment with malicious intent and criminal aspirations. Often people are detectable, and it is possible to filter them out before they enter. The aviation industry needs to think as much about what it does not want to see in employees, as much as the characteristics and skills they want.

Yet sometimes it is too late. Some will have passed through the net, bide their time, and act callously and devastatingly. Airline employees have close to unlimited access to all parts of an airport. This access and the possibilities it entails is an unquestionable threat to the aviation sector. The industry needs to broaden its horizon and think about how to detect threat-indicators after the selection process. What should you be looking for in your baggage handlers and pilots that send up a red flag? Are they attempting to access areas that are not pertinent to their work? Perhaps their circumstances have changed, and now for US$100 they are willing to bring criminal contraband for more menacing individuals?

One of the biggest factors that the aviation industry neglects is when employees lose their spark. Sometimes employees become jaded and angry during their tenure with the airline, causing them to seek revenge and retribution for what has occurred. In these cases, the employee has become a threat in a way that the screening process did not foresee. The employee has gone awry. The disenchanted employee entered the company bright-eyed and bushy tailed. However, the management and culture of the airline will have left them browbeaten, deflated, and disengaged from their work.

In the least extreme cases, the employee will have given up on their job; they will not care about the work they are doing, and bags will get lost and damaged as a result of their apathetic attitude. The larger issues occur if the employee feels as though they have been mistreated, and that they need to rectify this wrong through revenge. The threat then transitions from unhelpful, but benign, inefficiency, to active counterproductive work behavior. The vengeful employee utilizes sabotage, fraud, and a disregard for corporate compliance.

Psychologists have called this phenomenon ’employee disenchantment’. Their tolerance toward the company deteriorates progressively over time, until a tipping point is reached. The company or manager has gone one step too far. Then, as with the criminal opportunist, they will bide their time to find the precise moment and manner in which to exact their revenge. The cause and solution in this case lies with the management. What we deem ‘management swamps’ cluster in the organization, fostering disenchantment in employees, and increasing the risk of a retributive act. The key to reducing the threat is to identify and rectify where disenchantment is growing to a dangerous level.


Luke Treglown is an analyst and marketing executive with JTiP, a risk management consultancy based in London, UK. Luke’s background is in psychology, with a specialism in scientific enquiry to understanding human risk, capability, and threat in an organizational and intelligence setting. With JTiP, Luke offers insight into how organizations can reduce disenchantment and the insider threat within their workforce.

April 18, 2016

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