UB Expert in Airline Safety Says Federal Takeover of Airport Security Could Improve Operations

Would eliminate push to get job done at lowest possible cost

Release Date: September 26, 2001 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The proposed federal takeover of airport security ultimately could permit longer and more careful screening of passengers and their baggage, according to a University at Buffalo professor who serves on a Federal Aviation Administration panel that studies research and development needs in aviation security.

"Federalizing the airport security systems should remove some of the competitive pressures to do airport security checks for minimum cost," said Colin Drury, Ph.D., UB professor of industrial engineering. He is an expert in ergonomics, human performance in quality control, and safety in the airline and manufacturing sectors.

"Those of us who study inspections of all kinds know that one limitation on performance is how thoroughly you can search anything visually. If you don't have enough time, things get overlooked," he said.

At the same time, Drury said that improvements in operations at airport security checkpoints also could be made by implementing basic changes in job and workplace design.

He noted, for example, that while security companies in the U.S. restrict the amount of time during a work shift that security personnel spend doing visual screening, more can be done beyond task rotation.

"For example," Drury said, "we have data that show that, in general, well-designed workplaces produce better performance on the job.

"In some other countries, for instance, an airport security employee sits at an ergonomically designed console with equipment at his or her fingertips, instead of spending long periods staring up at a screen positioned above the head."

Drury noted that other countries require that airport security employees be college-educated and have a minimum of a bachelor's degree.

In some other countries, he added, employees responsible for airline security also have full benefits, which many U.S. workers do not.

"In comparison, our pay scales are very low, and as a result there is high labor turnover," he said. "With full benefits comes a more stable workforce, and that is a desirable thing," he said.

By federalizing the system, Drury said, it also should be possible to improve the design of the jobs themselves, factors that industrial engineering research long has shown helps to retain employees in numerous industries.

"There are other things that can be done in terms of good job design that help ensure a stable workforce," he said, noting that scheduling is often a contentious issue, since security checkpoints must be staffed despite absenteeism.

"At times, companies may pressure employees to stay on after their shifts, even though those employees have outside commitments, such as picking up children from pre-school," he said, noting that such scheduling and workplace factors help contribute to the high labor turnover.

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