Airport Security: Maximize Your Safety During Air Travel
By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
The recent deadly attack at the airport in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that left five people dead highlights the need for travelers to be aware of their surroundings and have a plan for any contingencies. Since 9/11, Americans have learned that being aware of their surroundings can be the difference between life and death. Being prepared is the first step to avoiding tragedy.
What Is Airport Security?
Airport security is defined as all security operations necessary to ensure the safety of employees, passengers, visitors and cargo. Typically, airport security systems are integrated and technologically advanced. They include human, physical and cyber security, as well as other technological measures working in concert.
The majority of the public flies through what are called Primary Commercial Service Airports. The FAA defines them as having 10,000 or more passenger boardings annually.
Airport officials work with local, state and federal agencies to ensure that adequate security standards are established and maintained. Airport security is a complex and continuously changing operation, based on federal regulatory requirements from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
The TSA is the federal agency charged with securing the nation’s airports. Each airport operator is responsible for meeting the regulatory security requirements. The airport operator is the government or private sector entity managing the airport.
Typically, the airport operator assigns security authority to one or more airport security coordinators (ASCs) who are airport employees. They are the “go to” individuals for all security issues. While the TSA or private screeners control the very visible front end screening portion of airport security, the ASCs have security responsibility for the entire facility.
Know High-Risk Areas in the Airport
High-risk areas include those inside or immediately surrounding the terminal. These areas are the parking garages, curbside check-in (including passenger pick-up and drop-off), inside terminal check-in, queues for the screening checkpoints to the areas where only ticketed passengers are allowed, and baggage pick-up.
Travelers should maintain good personal security awareness and have a contingency plan in place should an emergency arise.
To minimize your risk, learn to think like an adversary. Everyone has seen how terrorists often target well-populated areas where they can maximize their casualties. Each of the high-risk areas presents tempting terrorist targets, especially during high travel times. Typically, those times are holidays and peak business travel days, Sundays, Mondays, Thursday afternoons and Friday.
Parking garages are also dangerous for travelers, who are vulnerable to a suicide bomber or vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED). Become familiar with the parking garages at airports you frequent.
Avoid enclosed parking garages if you can. Because they are closed structures, they maximize the effect of an explosion. Open parking lots tend to mitigate the effects of an explosion.
The Role of Intelligence in Lessening Aviation Security Risks
Ideally, good intelligence will prevent a terrorist incident. Unfortunately, even the best intelligence cannot prevent some attacks from happening. There is no perfect security system.
Coordinating the intelligence efforts at all airport security centers in the U.S. was one of the changes made after 9/11 to enhance security. While actual operations are classified, it is likely that several planned attacks since 9/11 have been thwarted by the partnership of public and private security, law enforcement and military/government agencies.
However, there are always wild cards. Esteban Santiago, the alleged perpetrator of the Fort Lauderdale airport attack, owned his weapon legally. He reportedly went to an FBI office in Alaska and suggested that the CIA and ISIS were somehow urging him to act. His weapon was taken from him when the FBI field office sent him to a hospital for a mental health evaluation.
But as a U.S. citizen with no record and no medical or legal issues, Santiago got his weapon back after he was released from medical care. No intelligence analysis is going to detect that sort of attacker.
How to Mitigate Your Personal Risk
Try to avoid traveling just before a holiday, on a holiday or on peak travel days and times. Minimize the chance of being involved in an airport incident by teleconferencing rather than traveling. Using electronic methods for meetings will not only limit your risk, but can also save money for you and your company.
If you must fly and curbside check-in is busy while inside check-in is not, opt for the shorter line and use counter check-in. The same goes for screening queues if possible.
When you retrieve your baggage, be sure to know on which carousel your luggage will arrive and do not dawdle. Once your baggage is in your possession, move outside. In the Fort Lauderdale airport attack, the gunman had a legally checked firearm and simply located his bag in the baggage claim area, went into the bathroom, loaded his pistol, and began shooting.
Practicing good personal security is relatively simple. To be truly effective, you need to practice good security measures until you perform them subconsciously. One of the best ways to survive such a situation is the “run, hide, fight” advice as provided in a film produced by the Houston Office of the Department of Homeland Security.
According to the film, if a threatening event develops and you can escape, do so immediately. Do not stop to pick up your bags – they are replaceable but you are not. Do not stop until you are certain you are in a safe area.
If you are injured and not close to an exit or if the attacker blocks your escape, try to hide in place. For example, if there is some sort of office with a door (or a bathroom), get inside, lock the door and move any heavy objects to block the perpetrator’s entry. Silence any notification tones on your cell phone.
As a last resort, if you must fight, use whatever you can find as a weapon, including luggage, backpacks, chairs, anything that could save your life. Above all, try to avoid the victim mentality of giving up.
Remember: statistically, the chances of you or a family member being involved in an airport attack are very small. Even so, it is prudent to have a plan in place before an event occurs.
In the security industry, it is said that “complacency kills.” Thinking and having a plan beforehand increases the chances that you and your loved ones will survive any sort of armed incident.
About the Author
Dr. Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D. CPS, CAS, CHS-III, is a U.S. Army veteran, having served as both an enlisted man and as a military police commissioned officer, retiring in 1997. He is the Mentor: Security Management Degree Programs at AMU, where he has developed and teaches security and law enforcement courses including global terrorism, airport security design, and ethics. Jeffrey is the author of the book Axis Cavalry in WWII currently in print and a frequent presenter on homeland security at the national level, as well as the author of several peer-reviewed journal and popular press articles on a variety of topics. Jeffrey has also served as a subject matter expert for the History Channel™. He is a Certified Army Historian awarded by the U.S. Army Center for Military History (CMH) in addition to his expertise in security matters. He resides in Missouri with his wife of 31 years.