Alaska Creates Statewide System for Credentialing Airport Employees

Alaska Creates Statewide System for Credentialing Airport Employees
Author: 
Ronnie L. Wendt
Published in: 
January-February
2019

“If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport” is a popular saying in the industry. The sentiment is especially true in Alaska, where the state operates two very different airport systems: the Alaska International Airport System, comprised of Ted Stevens Anchorage and Fairbanks International, and the rural system, which includes 237 smaller airports. Naturally, different regulations apply to the different systems; but matters become even more complicated when certain requirements apply to subsections of the systems. 

Employee credentialing is one such area. Fifteen of the 200+ rural airports must adhere to the same TSA secure credentialing standards as their international counterparts; the rest have different standards. 

In addition, each international airport operates its own credentialing system, and the rural airports, while on the same credentialing platform, maintain it as a standalone system at each site. 

facts&figures

Project: Statewide Employee Credentialing System

Location: Alaska 

Scope: 2 int’l airports; 237 rural airports

Owner/Operator: Div. of Statewide Aviation, AK Dept. of Transportation

Cost: $1.5 million 

Funding: Int’l airport revenue fund; state general fund

Program Design & Implementation: GCR Inc.

Key Benefits: Automated credentialing; single integrated system for all airports; facilitates TSA regulatory compliance; provides continuous access

Add into the mix the state’s propensity to lose power and Internet connectivity for days at a time, and standardizing credentialing proves even more difficult. The state, however, is working to remedy the situation. The Division of Statewide Aviation for the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) and its technology partner recently launched a $1.5 million secure employee credentialing system for all DOT&PF operated airports in the state.  

  Working with its technology partner, GCR Inc., the state has already rolled out the integrated program at Fairbanks International and 12 of the 15 rural airports required to have similar credentialing measures in place. The remaining rural airports and Ted Stevens Anchorage International will go online in the months to come.

“Anchorage is the last because it’s the largest and most complex airport we had to deal with,” explains Jeremy Worrall, airport operations superintendent for the Statewide Aviation Division. “They have around 10,000 badges and that’s a much bigger lift.”

Overcoming Initial Resistance

“Prior to this project, both Anchorage and Fairbanks operated their own credentialing systems, and all of the rural airports were on a system of their own. Though the rural systems used the same system, they were not connected in any way. There was a separate standalone system at each airport,” states Worrall.

With the various systems continuing to age as TSA credentialing requirements increased, the time had come to consider replacing them. Though plenty of credentialing options exist, the DOT sought to go beyond entering information and printing out cards, Worrall explains. “We could have gotten another standalone system [for each airport], but we wanted a smart system that had more capabilities, was more airport oriented, could meet the TSA’s existing credentialing requirements and fit into the complex and changing airport credentialing world.” 

It became clear quickly that a single connected system for all airports made sense. However, not everyone agreed initially. One of the first steps was getting everyone to buy in to creating a singular system used by all. Some questioned why the state’s smaller airports needed a system like one used by an airport the size of JFK International. While such airports maintain thousands of badges, some of Alaska’s smaller airfields need less than 100. 

“But those smaller airports must adhere to the same rules as the larger international ones,” states Worrall. “They are required to meet all of the same requirements for credentialing.” 

Even so, he says it took “quite a bit of discussion, planning and leadership to get everyone to agree on that direction.”

With agreement reached, the work of executing the new
system began.

“We had to develop a common language for badges and badge statuses,” says Tobie Curry, project manager of GCR’s AirportIQ Secure Credentials. “We had to go through each status and come to a consensus on how that would be represented in the system.

Then & Now

Credentialing a potential new hire is a multi-step process: obtaining fingerprints and information for a background check; sending that data to TSA and the FBI; waiting for the results of the security threat assessment (STA); training for cleared individuals; and, finally, issuing a badge after training is complete. 

“This process could take one to two weeks,” says Curry. “But at the remote sites, credentialing staff may only be on site every third week or so; so that often extended the length of time it took to get a badge.”

The state Transportation Department also needed to badge some officials for multiple airports, which required duplicate data entry under the old system.

A central data repository shared between airports was one way to get around these problems. With the new system, airports can share data such as background checks and fingerprint information. 

“The state asked for a single repository of data that was set up for redundancy and high availability,” Curry says. “We had to include the capability for all airports to put information into the system. This way, if a person is working in Barrow but needs a badge in Gustavus, Gustavus can bring that information forward and share the background check and TSA results. They can share the information instead of requiring the person to go through another seven- to 10-day waiting period for a second background check with the TSA and FBI.” 

Before the state’s new system went online, the only way to share information between airports was on paper via fax. “If you were in Anchorage and you wanted somebody at Petersburg to be able to use your background check or TSA to clear this person, they would have to send a letter on letterhead to the St. Petersburg airport,” Curry says. “It was paper-based and involved a lot of emails and phone calls.” 

Once an airport received needed information, an employee had to key the information into that airport’s database. “A lot of the same information, all the same biographical details had to be typed into each system; and sometimes there was a third system that data had to be entered into,” says Worrall. “There was a tremendous opportunity for error, a ton of wasted effort. It was very time-consuming and repetitive.

“The integration brought all of this under one umbrella,” he adds. “Fingerprints are processed directly within the system, and it’s no longer a separate system. Outbound background checks are automated now. People don’t have to do that. And there is integration with service providers that manage those background checks.” 

Moreover, the new system is completely paperless. 

Every airport has access to a website portal where authorized signatories can apply to receive badges for employees. Representatives from airlines, ground handlers, etc. fill out online badging applications for each new hire, and the portal electronically submits information to the airport badge office. The badge office then schedules an initial enrollment session—a face-to-face visit where an airport designee gathers the new hire’s identification, takes fingerprints and photographs, and collects other pertinent information. This information is electronically dispatched to the designated aviation channeling service for processing, which returns results electronically. 

“It’s all automatic now,” says Worrall. “Before we had to move files with thumb drives, email or fax things, and type information in several times. Now, as soon as they finish the initial enrollment step, the system automatically sends out the information that’s needed for the background check. Once the approvals are in place, the system automatically generates an email to the badge applicant and their signatory that the background checks are clear, and they can come back to the airport to complete their required training and get their badge.” 

The time savings is significant, reports Curry. Previously, the entry process alone could take up to 45 minutes, now it takes just 15 minutes. 

“With the new interface put in place for the designated aviation channeling service, we’re seeing background checks come back within a few hours, and STAs back in one to two days,” he adds. 

The system is also integrated with the training provider, so airport personnel know at a glance what training each new hire has completed and what is still needed. “It can identify required training that is for everyone, training that is required by the authorized signer, and other airport-specific training,” he specifies. “Let’s say they need non-movement driver’s training; the airport connects that link to the training so that the icon is added to the person’s badge once he passes the training.” 

The system also ensures that the right documents are in place for the specific type of training each person is to receive. “If the badge needs a driver’s type endorsement, we won’t let them print a badge with that endorsement without a valid driver’s license in the system,” explains Curry. 

Required Redundancies 

In late November, an earthquake shook Alaska, knocking out power and Internet across the state. However, extreme winter weather often does the same thing, making communication difficult for days at a time. 

“There are routine, frequent and sometimes long internet outages in Alaska,” Worrall explains.

With that in mind, how do Alaskan airports rely on a cloud-based system for credentialing?

In a word: Redundancy. 

A partial version of the credentialing system that is loaded onto each workstation allows airports to operate a limited, or mini, secure credentialing system when the internet is down. This system only contains the data for that airport, and is periodically uploaded and synchronized with central repository. “Any changes that happen in the central database are also pushed down to the local database,” Curry says. 

This step continuously takes place in the background. If the internet goes down and an airport cannot access the web-based application, personnel can switch to a locally hosted site that allows them to make changes within the system. “This data is stored locally until the connectivity is back up, and then it is pushed up and submitted to the designated aviation channeling service,” Curry explains. “They can even disable badges on site because they can communicate with access control from the local station.” 

Worrall notes that new records aren’t sent out for background checks when the internet is down, but airports can still perform many basic functions. “We can enter new information and it can sit in the system and wait for the next connection to be transmitted. This means that in most cases, we won’t have to turn customers away because of an internet outage,” he relates. “We may have to wait until the internet is restored to submit new background checks, but with this offline capability we can still work within existing badge population as well as continue to meet our TSA regulatory obligations.”

Data at the central repository is also protected by redundancy. There are two data centers: one in Fairbanks and one in Anchorage. Each site has physical servers that house all the data for the airport system, and the system is duplicated on two servers at each site. If a server fails, the data moves to the center’s second server. If both machines are lost, the data moves to the other location. 

“Everything is replicated back and forth,” says Curry. “There is a lot of high availability and redundancy in the network.”

The large geographic span of Alaska also complicates matters. “With Alaska’s size and the distance between sites, network latency can be a problem,” says Curry. “We had to make sure we were only passing the minimum amount of data and using the minimum amount of bandwidth, so the system could still be responsive to the end user.”

One More Phase

Eventually, the Statewide Aviation Division would like the system to credential workers to work at multiple airports in just one step. “This is rural Alaska, so airline folks from one airport may go out to help another airport,” Worrall comments. “FAA technicians, for example, support the NavAids at all the rural airports; they don’t have folks based at every single one, they travel there.”

Currently, such employees must be credentialed at every airport and carry a separate badge for each. The new system will make this process easier. “We can now take a background check from one airport and charge ahead with badging at another airport because the system already has that information and knows they’re good,” Worrall explains. “But we are still badging them for another airport. We are still having to train them again. We are still going through those steps.” 

The next phase of the project will develop a multi-airport credential. But first, Alaska DOT needs to clear TSA hurdles to gain federal approval, notes Worrall.

“We will have to demonstrate how we can manage this and stay within TSA regulations,” he says. “But we hope to move forward with that in the next year.”

Subcategory: 
Security

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