Exclusive: Passenger security awareness in airline travel

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As the adage once spoke, “Air travel is the safest form of travel”. This may be true in the sense that there are no physical obstructions at 35,000 feet that travellers might encounter on the land or sea; however, the adage leaves out two important variables of air travel, which many do not consider – time spent in the terminal/boarding area and time spent among the manifest of 200 – 400 passengers and flight crew. 

In the 1992 film, Passenger 57, the film’s antagonist, Charles Rane, makes a rather sarcastic but true comment, “Airline personnel assume a certain risk, it’s part of the job, but these passengers…they’re so innocent”.  Pilots, flight attendants, terminal and ground service personnel undertake the understanding that at any given moment they may be involved in a security related incident across multiple levels of the risk spectrum, from a security breach or the discovery of a crudely constructed improvised explosive device (IED) wedged in the landing gear of a 757.  

Passengers, on the other hand, are not obligated to exercise basic security awareness from curbside to window/middle/aisle seat. “Security is everyone’s responsibility” is a saying that seems to be more proactively practiced in the wake of a major security incident, especially when involving a major transit hub such as an airport. Security is indeed EVERYONE’S responsibility, especially when not only other lives are involved but also under the assumption that other airline travellers’ vigilance for threats are obsolete. 

On 27 November, 1989, Avianca Flight 203 departed from El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá , Colombia; an IED was detonated moments after takeoff resulting in destruction of the aircraft, all 107 passengers and crew on board, as well as three bystanders on the ground were killed (Transport Security International, 2019). This was an instance where the trigger person did not even know he was carrying the IED that would lead to his and the other 109 lives that were tragically ended that day. Jaime Carrera, the passenger that acted as an, “initiated mule”, was tasked by a local cartel to record a conversation via a tape recorder of a VIP on board; once play was pressed, it triggered the explosive.

Air travellers do not need to be aviation security specialists to follow instincts and notice that something may be a little off with a fellow traveller in the sterile area of the terminal or an unattended vehicle suspiciously idling in the non-sterile area of the passenger drop off. Red flags are easier to spot then one may think. This is not to say that the Avianca Flight 203 tragedy was the fault of the manifest or airline employees; however, key indicators might have been noticed from the curbside to boarding gate, which set off those red flags that something seemed out of place.

Four red flags to look out for:

Body language. No matter how much the attempt is made to mask evil intentions, the human body reacts in ways to raise red flags. Depending on the skill set of the aggressor(s) will determine how high the red flag will raise. When trying to conceal something, either physically or mentally, the body will tense up and generate more perspiration. Ironically, the aggressor(s) will be the one looking around and monitoring his/her/their surroundings to avoid detection.

Human error. Sometimes, those who are on the look out for red flags have the false notion that an evil mastermind orchestrated the sequence of events. Granted, this can be true at times; however, it is sometimes through the accidental assistance from airport or airline personnel. Doors leading to tarmac and luggage areas, for example, need to be accessed usually by a combination of a card swipe and pass code. One of the first things that airport personnel are taught is that doors have delays in closing. Once the personnel go through the doorway, he/she must secure it behind them. Remember, opportunity is a primary driver for deviant behaviour.

Know the region’s current political climate. Instincts and probability of threat(s) play hand in hand. If the current political or social climate is heated, chances are that there are higher chances of desperation and unscrupulous behaviour leading to a security threat. Terrorist organisations want to be feared and known to the world, which is why airport/airline attacks generate more publicity and internal power.

Tampered spaces. An aircraft is a unique piece of equipment with many passageways and compartments in view of passengers. The lavatories for instance have numerous compartments that are subjected to searches by security agents or cleaning crews prior to the next outbound flight. However, reminiscent of, Human Error, many aircraft searches are inadequate due to outbound time restraints.  Never assume that a problem or malfunction has already been tended too. If you see something that appears to be an unsecured piece of interior compartment in a discrete place such as a lavatory, advise a member of the flight crew immediately.

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Matthew Porcelli

By Matthew Porcelli, CPP

You can connect with Matthew on LinkedIn here

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