assessments

Special Series: Air Travel Security

7 MINS READJul 5, 2011 | 18:31 GMT

Editor's Note: This is the second installment in a series in which Stratfor discusses the many facets of travel security. Click here for Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6 and Part 7.

On June 24, a dual U.S.-Nigerian citizen named Olajide Oluwaseun Noibi took a Virgin America flight from New York to Los Angeles despite never having purchased a ticket, using a boarding pass with the wrong date and someone else’s name. Well after the flight had taken off with Noibi on board, two passengers seated near him complained to a flight attendant about Noibi's body odor. After requesting his boarding pass and identification to make alternative seating arrangements, the flight attendant discovered Noibi had illegally boarded the plane, at which point he or she alerted the pilot that a stowaway was on board. The pilot decided to maintain course and keep Noibi under close surveillance, and when the plane landed in Los Angeles the authorities took Noibi in for questioning. (He was not arrested until several days later, when he attempted to illegally board another flight to Atlanta.)

No evidence suggests Noibi boarded the plane with any malicious intent, and reports since his arrest indicate he has a history of attempting (and on at least one other occasion succeeding) to use a similar ruse to travel. However, his ability to pass through security checkpoints and board a jet without ever having purchased a valid ticket nearly a decade after the 9/11 attacks is an example of how no security system, however well-funded or well-designed, will be invulnerable to human error. For this reason, it is important for travelers to keep in mind the measures they can take to reduce the risks involved in air travel.

Passenger Awareness as Personal Security

Since the 9/11 attacks, a number of changes have been enacted to improve security for airline passengers. Air Marshals are present on U.S. and many foreign airlines, cockpit doors remain locked while the plane is in flight and international "no-fly" databases — aimed at ensuring that people who pose a potential threat do not board international flights — have grown extensively. But perhaps the most effective security improvement has been the heightened state of vigilance air travelers have adopted since 9/11.

Situational awareness is always the most important aspect of personal security, and for air travel this entails keeping a number of potential hazards in mind. When boarding an aircraft, passengers should pay attention to the locations of exits, and while in flight count the steps between their seat and the exit. If the plane fills up with smoke, visibility will be impaired, and it is good to know the approximate distance to the exits. If possible, passengers should store baggage in an overhead compartment above or in front of their seat, both to keep an eye on it and make sure it is not tampered with — and to make disembarking quicker.

Communication is important between passengers and flight attendants; it is also important between passengers. If something seems unusual with another passenger or the plane itself, telling someone can help bring attention to a potential problem. Indeed, without passengers contacting the flight attendant in the Noibi case, his status may have gone undiscovered.

There are also a number of relatively inexpensive items passengers can purchase that could be useful in an emergency situation. Examples of these include a smoke hood (a protective device that prevents smoke inhalation) and a small flashlight among a passenger’s carry-on items that can be utilized in an attack or an accident aboard the aircraft. In such situations, smoke inhalation, especially from the extremely toxic burning plastics within a plane, poses a serious threat. In addition, a flashlight can be used to facilitate a passenger’s leaving an aircraft when the power is out and the air is thick with smoke. Such emergency gear should be kept in a pocket or in a bag kept at the passenger’s feet.

'Hard' vs. 'Soft' Security

With more emphasis placed on securing aircraft in recent years, potential attackers may attempt to attack terminals rather than the planes themselves, where crowds of waiting people present an enticing, easier-to-attack target for militants aiming to cause mass casualties. It is useful to think of airport terminals as divided into two parts. The "soft side" is the area near a ticket counter and, in the case of the United States, before Transportation Security Administration checkpoints, where passengers and carry-on luggage are screened — while the "hard side" is past the security checkpoint. Time spent in line at the ticket counter and at security checkpoints should be minimized when possible, though as all air travelers know, this is often easier said than done.

In the first case, arriving at the counter early enough (three hours for an international flight, two for a domestic flight) to avoid the rush of latecomers generally reduces the amount of time one will spend in line, and thus the time one is vulnerable to an attack. Airports are set up to minimize loitering in the soft area for this reason, among others. To expedite the process, one should avoid wearing clothes with lots of metal buttons and buckles and shoes that are not easily removed. One should also minimize the amount of carry-on baggage he or she may bring on board. It is likewise important to have all travel documents somewhere easily accessible, such as a folder or travel pouch. The January 2011 attack against Moscow's Domodedovo airport is a prime example of an attack against the soft side of airport security and illustrates the need to minimize the time spent outside the more hardened area past security checkpoints.

Once on the hard security side, travelers should attempt to avoid the congested waiting areas at the gate, if possible, by utilizing the members-only lounges operated by many airlines. This helps to keep the traveler out of a potential attack zone, away from crowds and out of plain view.

Passengers using airport wireless Internet services should be careful to only connect to the airport's official wireless hub and avoid using public networks for anything deemed sensitive — banking information, anything involving a social security number or work-related confidential information, to name a few. If Internet use is necessary, do not connect to access points named "Free WiFi" as it may connect to a hacker via a computer-to-computer connection, making the user vulnerable to identity theft. Also, newer generation cellular phones may automatically connect to available access points, making them vulnerable to a hacker trying to steal personal information. This function usually can — and should — be turned off before arriving at the airport.

International Travel

In many parts of the world, air travel can be dangerous because of inadequate safety, maintenance and security procedures. This is especially true in the developing world, where maintenance regulations and procedures often are not strictly enforced. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) prohibits U.S. carriers from flying into foreign airports that do not meet security and safety standards. Although this information is not readily available to the public, determined travelers could contact the FAA for a list and then avoid those airlines and airports that are considered substandard. The consular information sheets issued by the U.S. State Department also provide information about air travel safety. In addition, airport terminals, especially in the developing world, are notorious for criminal activity. When on the soft security side, unattended luggage can be stolen, and travelers can be victimized by pickpockets — especially when they are less vigilant after a long, exhausting intercontinental flight.

At the destination airport, transportation can be arranged in advance to further minimize time spent on the soft side of security. For traveling executives, discretion should be employed in finding the local driver on the other end of a flight. A driver who holds up a sign bearing the executive's name and company could tip off potential kidnappers or militants to the presence of a high-value target.

Situational awareness and preparation are the most effective personal security measures a traveler can take to avoid this and other potential hazards. Paying attention to people and events in the area and avoiding potential attack zones are two basics for self-preservation while in the terminal and on the plane.

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