Security at Hong Kong Airport was under the spotlight today after a set of pictures emerged that appear to show guards in restricted areas falling asleep on the job.

The pictures, acquired by Hong Kong Free Press, show members of staff working for Aviation Security Company Limited (AVSECO) asleep in various positions in SuperTerminal 1 – the largest air freight handling centre in the world.

The images were acquired from an anonymous whistleblower, who said he had been working for the firm for 15 years and also claimed a number of rules were being broken at the facility.

Sleeping on the job? Airport guards appeared to have dozed off. Photo: HKFP.

AVSECO, which is based at the airport, employs some 3,800 personnel and provides “a wide range of services including aircraft security services, boarding gate security controls, access controls and guarding services to various facilities operators”, according to the company’s website.

The company provides security services for Hong Kong Air Cargo Terminals Limited (Hactl), which owns and operates SuperTerminal 1, according to AVSECO’s website.

In addition to the pictures of snoozing guards, the whistleblower’s dossier included images of unmanned observation towers and a number of videos that appeared to show cargo trucks passing through security checkpoints without being checked.

The yellow observation platforms, seen in a number of pictures, are supposed to give staff members unobstructed views of 300-metre stretches of the giant terminal, one member of staff at the security firm said.

Observation platforms in SuperTerminal 1 stand empty. Photo: HKFP.

The whistleblower claimed in a dossier obtained by Hong Kong Free Press, that facilities are often understaffed and that guard posts are left unmanned if security staff visit the bathroom.

He also claimed that staff allow prohibited articles, such as lithium batteries, onto passenger planes, and that X-ray checks of cargo heading for passenger planes was often skipped to save time. There was no evidence to back up these claims.

In addition the whistleblower complained about working conditions, saying staff on 12-hour shifts were often forced to work longer; that sick pay was often withheld and that managers sometimes refused to approve holiday requests.

An AVSECO spokesman told HKFP that the “majority” of allegations made by the whistleblower, which were put to the company, were “untrue and unfounded”.

Senior Manager of the Operations Support Department, Calvin Huen, added, however, that allegations concerning staff members who “might have neglected their duties are being thoroughly investigated”. He said disciplinary action would be taken where necessary.

“AVSECO adopts very stringent procedures regarding security screening and supervision of staff in their duty performance,” he said in a statement. “Should staff be found to have failed to comply with laid down procedures or breached the code of discipline, the company will deal with these cases seriously.”

“Reports or complaints of misconduct are handled by an independent Discipline Investigations Unit which will conduct fair and thorough investigations. When a disciplinary offence is proven, the company will apply disciplinary actions commensurate with the nature and severity of the offences. Where necessary the company will also conduct a review of relevant procedures and make appropriate changes.”

Cargo appears to be driven through security checkpoints without being examined by guards. Photo: HKFP.

A Hactl statement sent to HKFP read: “It has come to the attention of Hactl that employees of its security contractor AVSECO were sleeping while on duty. Hactl is currently researching the facts of the matter, and has demanded a full explanation from AVSECO.

“Until this is received, Hactl is unable to make any further comment. Hactl has immediately implemented a security oversight regime utilising its own employees, to ensure that there are no further breaches of security procedures.

“Hactl has never previously had occasion to question AVSECO ‘s professionalism or effectiveness. Hactl wishes to make absolutely clear that it treats aviation security as its single highest priority. Should its investigation reveal that the sole government appointed security contractor has failed in its vitally important duties, Hactl will take all necessary and appropriate steps to work with the authority to ensure that no such incident can occur in future.”

SuperTerminal 1 is the largest air freight handling centre in the world. Photo: HKFP.

Hong Kong Airport Authority refused to comment on the issue, referring HKFP to AVSECO, of which it is a 51 per cent shareholder.

AVSECO was awarded best in class for security inspection in the IATA Global Airport Monitor survey in 2002.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.