9.3 – Transport Safety and Security

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

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

1. A New Context in Transport Security

While issues of safety and security have preoccupied transport planners and managers for many years, 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 are seeking 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 re-shaped transportation in unforeseen ways. In addition, threats to health, such as the spread of pandemics, present significant challenges to transport planning and operations.

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 into two areas: 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. Over the years, access to freight terminals has been increasingly restricted, and the deployment of security personnel has helped control thefts somewhat.

The most visible emerging form of security threat is cybersecurity to which transportation infrastructures and organizations are particularly vulnerable. The growth in the use of information technologies and their associated networks have 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. In 2017, a 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 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 information systems.

The expected outcomes of these measures include:

  • Reduced risk of travel or trade disruptions in response to security threats.
  • Improved security against theft and diversion of cargo, 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 goods such as counterfeits, narcotics and weapons, and of persons.
  • Improved reliance on the 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 by the passengers. 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 at least, with reductions in hijackings. However, terrorists changed their tactics by placing bombs in un-accompanied luggage and packages, as for example in the Air India crash off Ireland in 1985 and the Lockerbie, Scotland, the crash of Pan Am 103 in 1988. 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 placed a great deal of strain on the security process. There were wide disparities in the effectiveness of passenger screening at different airports, and because passengers were being 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 in turn 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, the setting of 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, but in the future may include retinal scans and facial pattern recognition.

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 as high risk were further screened. However, this program was canceled in 2004, mostly because it created too many false positives, in the line of 98%. It was replaced by the Secure Flight program working under similar principles but 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 screening procedures, trusted traveler programs were introduced and in which individuals who have volunteered information such as fingerprinting and background checks can go through an expedited security procedure.

The imposition of these measures has come at a considerable cost, which was estimated to be more than $7.4 billion annually by IATA. 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. Further, aircraft design and operations have been changed, including the introduction of reinforced cabin doors. These measures also had an impact on 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 now 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 security and customs procedures impose at major ports of entry have also incited the expansion of customs pre-clearance programs.

The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 brought forward a new dimension to passenger transportation security, which is epidemiological security. This is particularly the case for high-density forms of passenger transportation such as public transit, cruise shipping, and air travel. People are reluctant to use such modes of transportation because of the perceived risks of being infected. 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 an increase 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, custom duty evasion, piracy, and the deployment of sub-standard vessels (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 in freight are of an even greater magnitude. The less-regulated and greater 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 has made the issue of security in shipping an extremely difficult one to address. For ports, vulnerabilities (unauthorized access to cargo and facilities) can both be exploited from the land side as well as on the maritime side. The container, which has greatly 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 a time consuming and virtually impossible task 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 basic elements of this legislation were adopted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) 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. The requirement of an Automated Identity System (AIS) for all vessels between 300 and 50,000 dwt. AIS 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 to its physical security, communication systems, utilities, etc.
  3. All cargoes destined for the US 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 around the world as, without certification, a port would have difficulty in trading with the US. Securing sites, undertaking risk assessments, and monitoring ships represent additional costs without any 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 US required that all containers being shipped to the US to undergo screening. Foreign ports were expected to purchase expensive gamma-ray and x-ray scanners and undertake to screen of all US-bound containers, regardless of the degree of security threat. This is a further financial and operational complications foreign ports must contend with.

Like its passenger counterpart, the airline freight industry is facing stringent security requirements. Since 2010, a TSA regulation requires the screening of all cargo carried by air within the United States or internationally and this before being loaded. The Certified Cargo Screening Program (CCSP) forces airlines, freight forwarders, and shippers to assume the costs of these security measures in an attempt 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.

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.