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Thoughts on Aviation Security: ‘Inattentional Blindness’

By Kelly Hoggan

All of those people, intent on passing the basketball, missed the gorilla standing among them.

U.S. commercial aviation is a huge system made up of airports, airlines and a vast supporting network of suppliers, vendors, contractors and government regulatory and law enforcement agencies. Millions of travelers and thousands of cargo shippers use that system every day to fly themselves and their belongings, as well as an amazing amount of cargo, to thousands of destinations worldwide. Given how economically vital commercial aviation is to the nation, it’s crucial that the security which protects it is always highly effective. There are issues, however, that could possibly affect that security, including a phenomenon known as ‘inattentional blindness.’

Splitting Your Attention

Inattentional blindness occurs when you fail to notice an object or even a person that’s right in front of you because your attention was focused on something else, such as a task or an event or some other object. In aviation security, for example, an airport police officer might fail to discern a fully visible traveler who’s accidentally crossed through an equally visible portal into a non-public area because the police officer is engaged in another task. Both activities – the traveler entering a non-public area and the task the officer is performing – are plainly evident to him, but his visual perception is engaged on the task he’s performing and not on that other person.

Failure to Notice

In the above example, our police officer has failed to notice the ‘trespasser,’ if you will, because his attention is engaged on the task he was already performing. And so, the sight of that traveler entering a prohibited area doesn’t fully register with the police officer, even though the officer does in fact see him trespassing. There’s a simple human performance factor in all this for the police officer, and it prevented him from immediately picking out and stopping our wayward traveler: what that traveler did was unexpected.

Expecting the Unexpected

Almost without exception, inattentional blindness results from failing to notice unexpected objects or activities, such as the inadvertent trespass committed by that traveler. A person walking through an airport terminal portal clearly marked (oftentimes glaringly so) “Exit Only” and failing to be stopped for doing so by the security guard stationed there is a classic example of inattentional blindness. The security guard may be watching travelers as they properly exit the portal, but someone unexpectedly entering it might not fully register even though the guard sees it happening with her own eyes. There are documented cases of this very event occurring at an airport or two over the years, creating a security breach and subsequent lockdown of the terminal until the trespassing person could be found.

Preventing Inattentional Blindness

For obvious reasons, it’s vital to effective aviation security that inattentional blindness be prevented as much as possible. One way of doing so is to train security personnel to always ‘expect the unexpected.’ Fortunately, security consultants have been aware of the phenomenon for several years now and training programs and software aimed at helping aviation security personnel always perform at their best is available.

What we know about inattentional blindness is that attention plays a key role when it comes to visual perception. When security personnel focus too hard on one thing they may not notice the unexpected things entering their visual field. It’s up to everyone in aviation security to ensure that the phenomenon of inattentional blindness is both understood and accepted and that the training needed to keep it from occurring is also a part of every security professional’s continuing education curriculum.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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