Airport Watch

Watching from the fenceline as Emirates Flight EK207 touches down on Toronto’s runway 24L at the end of its ­nonstop, 15-hour run from Dubai, aircraft enthusiast Andy Cline is thoroughly enjoying his hobby. As he closely observes the taxiing Boeing 777-300ER he (and about 150 other Airport Watch volunteers that regularly “spot” ­aircraft at Toronto-Pearson airport) is contributing to the safety and security of a major Canadian airport.

Photo: John Davies

With the original concept now eight years old, the Airport Watch (AW) programme continues to grow. In Canada, the programme began at the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport in Canada’s capital and has evolved into a national programme in operation across the country.

In this heightened era of security, where major airports are viable targets for terrorist groups and other criminal elements, this volunteer-based programme has assisted the Security Operations Centre (SOC) of their respective airports in reporting suspicious activities and possible hazards to aircraft.

The concept is somewhat similar to a typical neighbourhood watch initiative – utilizing volunteers as the essence of the programme. Even so, these volunteers are very professional and highly motivated by their passion for aviation. Many are experts in various facets of airport operations and aircraft recognition. All are cognizant of the need for increased security and it is interesting to note that a number of airport and aviation-related industry employees have also joined the Airport Watch ranks.

Equipped with binoculars, scanners, mobile phones, and reference guides, they have detailed knowledge of the airport’s perimeter layout and the businesses that operate nearby. As spotters, they spend hours at a time on public access roads watching aircraft from outside the perimeter fence. Most are interested in commercial airliners while some are keenly interested in military aircraft or helicopters. It is not unusual for volunteers to visit other airports to do some additional spotting.

Due to their familiarity with the airport surroundings, many of these perceptive observers are aware of visitors to the airport, both regular and irregular. Their keen sense of observation, often described as “community intelligence,” has been added to airport security networks in a practical arrangement.

As officials have discovered, the dedication and proficiency of AW volunteers cannot be underestimated. Having been been briefed on potential threats that may be faced by any major airport, AW members are well-prepared and report any suspicions to the SOC by mobile phone. As they drive to and from the airport, they also watch for suspicious vehicles parked as far away as 12 km from the runways.

According to their credo of “Observe, Record and Report,” they do not take any direct action themselves. This is repeated at meetings to ensure compliance because organizers are concerned that doing more may lead to confrontation and possible injury.

Reports called in over the years have included criminal activity that has resulted in police arrests and criminal investigations of national security. More routinely, AW members report emergency access gates that have had their chain and lock cut off overnight, concealed cuts in perimeter fencing that may have provided illegal access near a bonded warehouse, plowed snow banks that are too close to the fencing (allowing easy access), recovered stolen items, suspicious vehicles, and wildlife on or near active runways.

Photo: Andrew Cline

Of course, these enthusiasts visited ­airports prior to the creation of the Airport Watch, but now they have passed police checks and know each other, which adds to their mutual safety. Most members visit their airport locale several times a week, while some visit daily. Airport facility tours have increased awareness of the various safety and security facets of their local airport. Area police forces get to know them and will often stop and chat with AW volunteers rather than challenge them.

In addition to the monthly meetings in an airport boardroom to discuss aviation concerns, tours of aviation facilities are also organized, such as to Nav Canada ATC, fixed-base operators (FBOs) such as Aero Shell and Esso Avitat, and tours of new passenger terminals.

 The national committee has organized tours of the Montreal-Trudeau International Airport (home to Air Canada’s training and maintenance centres) and the Bombardier Aerospace assembly plant for CRJ 200 and Challenger production lines. Other national tours by combined chapters included Canadian Forces Base (CFB) Trenton and the military aircraft storage facility at the Mountainview detachment.

 Local tours for the 150 plus members of the Toronto AW are too numerous to mention here but have included Bombardier Aerospace at Downsview (home of the impressive Global Express and the Dash-8 production lines), CFBs Borden and Trenton, Goderich Aircraft, Diamond Aircraft, and the Airport Fire Hall.

Calgary AW volunteers have enjoyed tours of the flight line, the large Air Canada maintenance centre and local museums.

It has been common for AW members in one city to invite those from other cities to join them on special tours and events. In mid-November, Ottawa members were invited to see the arrival of the Airbus A380 on an Air France proving flight to Montreal.

Monthly meetings help identify a wide range of concerns from the AW volunteers. (Photo: Jacques Brunelle)

Security Detail
Airport Watch volunteers spend most of their time sitting at the fenceline watching aircraft, maintaining a security presence and ready to call SOC for any irregularities.

 Although there is no set schedule for the volunteers, hours on site are recorded in order to permit airport authorities to monitor activities and help improve the local chapter. The 150 members of the Toronto-Pearson airport chapter recorded more than 10,000 community hours in 2007. This type of added security presence is a bonus for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) which is considering additional support to their volunteers. Ottawa volunteer John Davis has alone recorded more than 1100 hours in 2007, which has been very much appreciated by the authorities concerned.

Establishing New Chapters
The success of the Ottawa chapter of Airport Watch Canada has gained momentum. Other Canadian airports such as Montreal-Trudeau, Vancouver and Edmonton are currently in the process of recruiting the volunteers. Established Standard Operation Procedures and Terms of Reference are invaluable for airports considering a local AW chapter. Moreover, police background checks done on all applicants adds to the credibility of the initiative.

Tight police and airport prioritizations are a reality at most busy airports, putting time at a premium. Established groups, through the national committee, are ready to assist new spotters in organizing a local chapter after an airport agrees in principle to initiate the programme.

Photo: Jacques Brunelle

The latest airport to consider adopting Airport Watch is Montreal-Trudeau international airport where it was officially presented in early November 2007. ADM Security and Airport Watch Canada committee members hosted the introductory meeting that was attended by 28 volunteers. It is anticipated that this group will quickly increase to over 100 members in the coming months.

Avocational Health and Safety (AHS) is a new initiative aimed at verifying that spotting areas and activities are generally safe for the volunteers.

Added Value
As mentioned, the AW has provided valued assistance in reporting suspicious activity in the approach areas. This ­provides added value during visits of high profile aircraft and airliners such as the U.S. Air Force One. AW volunteers assisted during the past two Ottawa visits by the U.S. President. The IL-62 state aircraft of Mr. Viktor Zubkov, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, received the same vigilance in November.

It is anticipated that all of the AW groups, but primarily the new Vancouver chapter, will become very busy during the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010.

Airport Watch Canada
All large airports have spotters. The key to enhanced security is to initiate contact and put some organizational steps in place.

Airport Watch chapters enjoy regular tours including this one to CFB Trenton and Mountainview, thanks to the cooperation of the Canadian Armed Forces.

Learning from the experience of forming the Ottawa chapter back in 1999, followed by the Toronto chapter in 2004, current efforts are smoother with the assistance of members of the national Airport Watch Canada committee. By becoming organized independently of airport ­agencies, local AW volunteer groups are self-sufficient, allowing for more flexibility as the group and airport entities evolve.

Participating airport authorities are very pleased with the programme to date. The Ottawa airport authority continues to fund the local AW chapter and routinely includes positive statements, ­statistics and photos on the programme in their Annual Report to shareholders.

Each chapter has established, or are in the process of developing, professional web sites in cooperation with their respective airport authority, some of which sponsor the sites which are all being linked.

As each newly formed AW group begins operations, they adopt similar Terms of Reference and SOPs to guide them. This ensures that all members are aware of ­relevant airport regulations, while assisting them in deciding what to report.

 Although the regulations appear to be imposing constraints on what was once a simple hobby, the security needs of today impose clear expectations by the airport agencies on spotters. That being said, AW volunteers enjoy benefits, such as tours of airport facilities, that regular spotters are seldom accorded. Many AW volunteers are known to FBO crews, and have become very much a part of the ­airport community – with that comes respect, acceptance, safety, camaraderie and opportunities.

As a national body, Airport Watch Canada is informally composed of volunteer executives from the different chapters, local airport police liaison and airport authority ­representatives. Together, they review new initiatives and suggest improvements. Officers from the Ottawa Police Service; Peel Regional Police; Montreal police with ADM Sûreté Aéroportuaire; and federal and local RCMP units for Calgary and Vancouver serve as the primary police liaison with the groups. Such partnerships are the norm in Canada because they work very well. Airport Watch Canada operates coast to coast, in parallel with other security programmes such as iWatch, Coastal Watch and Crimestoppers.

Along with members of Transport Canada and the Department of National Defence (DND), I have promoted the AW programme during presentations to airport authorities across Canada as a beneficial airport perimeter security initiative.

Calgary Airport Watch volunteer watches over the airport perimeter with the Calgary skyline in the distance. This chapter is co-sponsored by the Calgary (YYC/CYYC) Airport Authority and the RCMP's K Division National Security Investigations Section (NSIS)

Airport Watch initiatives are supported by the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and was featured in their international periodical, ICAO Journal. In Canada, it is further supported by the federal Minister of Transport, who personally awarded a second place finish for the 2002 “Safety Programme of the Year,” with Honourable Mention, after being nominated by the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport Authority. This was followed in 2003 by a “Good Show Award” from the Canadian Owners and Pilots Association (COPA) based on another ­airport authority submission. It is also a Best Practice of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and directly supported by the RCMP’s National Security Criminal Investigations (NSCI) units in partnership with local airport policing and security units.

Benefitting others that are further away, Airport Watch Canada details have been presented to airport police representatives in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Information has also been passed on to airport authorities in the European Union, and United Arab Emirates among others.

The Airport Watch Canada committee is always willing to share ­beneficial information with other authorities in the hopes that this eventually develops into an international programme aimed at assisting most international airports where “spotting” is encouraged, or at least tolerated.

Cpl Brunelle is currently posted to the Civil Aviation Protective Intelligence Unit, National Security Criminal Investigations, RCMP HQ.
He is currently posted to the Civil Aviation Protective Intelligence Unit, National Security Criminal Investigations, RCMP HQ, Ottawa.
Cpl Jacques Brunelle currently heads the Civil Aviation Protective Intelligence Unit at RCMP HQ. The National Coordinator of Airport Watch Canada, he can be reached at Jacques.Brunelle@rcmp-grc.gc.ca
© FrontLine Security 2007