Interest Soars in Airport Watch Program

Aircraft enthusiasts watch from behind the runway fenceline as Emirates airline flight EK207 touches down on runway 24L at Toronto-Pearson airport, ending its 15-hour nonstop run from Dubai. For these enthusiasts, however, watching aircraft is more than just a hobby. These uniformed volunteers are also contributing to the safety and security of a major Canadian airport.

Volunteers of the Toronto Airport Watch chapter are briefed by National Coordinator, Jacques Brunelle at the National Aerospace Museum at Downsview Airport.

With roots at the Macdonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa, Canada, the Airport Watch (AW) program has evolved into a major crime prevention program with more than 400 community volunteers donating 15,000 hours a year at seven airports across North America.

In this era when airports are viable targets for terrorist groups and other criminal elements, the volunteer-based AW groups have assisted their respective airports by reporting suspicious activities and potential aircraft safety hazards to the airport authorities. The concept is similar to a neighbourhood watch initiative, in which volunteers are the essence of the program.

The AW national co-ordinator provides guidance and information to local startups, which are initiated by volunteers, the ­airports or airport police. Each chapter is independent and operated by the volunteers in close co-operation with the airport authority. Uniformed airport security ­officers, airport police, or in some cases plainclothes RCMP national security teams liaise with AW volunteers at each airport.

The program is flexible to accommodate the unique situation of each airport. In Montreal, for instance, the airport authority set up the program and airport police provided background checks on all the volunteers. AW volunteers are professional and highly motivated by their passion for aviation. They have passed police background checks, and their observations – often described as “community intelligence” – can be very effective. The Montreal airport authority, Aéroports de Montréal (ADM), was quick to capitalize on valuable information supplied its AW volunteers by starting the first airport suspicious incident reporting system. The system allows AW volunteers to submit information to a secure website for assessment by ADM security.

Every AW volunteer is briefed by local police or expert guest speakers on the general threats that any major airport faces, including illicit access through perimeter fencing, vandalism, theft, and possible information-gathering activities by criminal organizations. Even surface-to-air-missile awareness is provided. Volunteers are briefed about potential hazards to themselves through their own volunteer health and safety representatives.

Ottawa chapter volunteers enjoy a hanger tour of the National Research Centre's Uplands flight test facility.

AW members normally report any suspicions to the airport operations centre by mobile phone or by a secure link on the airport’s website. As they drive to and from the airport, they also watch for suspicious vehicles parked within 15 kilometres of the runway approaches, as well as non-routine events occurring outside the airport’s perimeter. Because of this program, more and more airport authorities are aware of what goes on outside their perimeter fencing.

The AW program has many reported successes to date, including the discovery of cut perimeter fencing, unlocked gates, and wild animals or birds on or near aircraft operating areas; the observation of possibly faulty equipment on aircraft; and the provision of leads for police or national security investigations. AW volunteers do not take any direct action with regards to their observations. They report events as concerned citizens and have no additional authority. Their motto is “observe, record and report.”

Forward-thinking airport authorities appreciate the benefits that AW groups ­provide – both for airport officials and local communities. Many airports have put the program into operation with little expense, and a new launch creates a flurry of media interest, with the focus on positive community participation and innovative airport security. The latest airports to become partners in the AW concept are Montreal Pierre Elliott Trudeau; Montreal Mirabel; and Minneapolis St. Paul international airports. Across North America, AW volunteers have become an important part of airport security networks. Airport authorities work with the volunteers to devise appropriate reporting processes, and airport police often stop and chat with volunteers during patrols. Internationally, in Sydney, the Australian Federal Police in co-operation with the local airport authority, are providing for all the set up with plans to operate the program at the 11 largest international airports. In addition, the International Assocation of Airport Seaport Police (IAASP) in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, are making this program a U.S. Best Practice and expand it to dozens of major American airports with an eye on some seaports where ship enthusiasts are known to frequent. Clearly, this program has many potentials which surround the close cooperation of community members near these transit points making partnerships in security a sought after, effective commodity.

On a visit to the Montreal-Trudeau International Airport, Ottawa Airport Watch volunteers observe the arrival of an Airbus A380, and chat with the local media about their role as observers. (Photo: Patrick Cardinal)

The AW program is supported by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and has been formally recognized with awards from the RCMP in 2000, the Minister of Transport in 2002, the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) in 2003.

Corporal Jacques Brunelle is the National Coordinator of the Airport Watch program. He can be reached by email at jbrunelle@frontline-global.com
© FrontLine Security 2009