Safety in Airports and Other Non-Permissive Environments
by Mike Wood
When the Fort Lauderdale Airport shooting happened in January of this year, a lot of armed citizens began thinking about the best ways to deal with this kind of attack. As a frequent business traveler who spends a lot of time in airports myself, I was certainly one of them.
As lawfully-armed citizens, we frequently focus our attention on firearms when it comes to defensive preparations. Our firearms are certainly an essential part of our defensive plans, but our mental preparation and awareness are even more critical to our survival, particularly in a non-permissive environment like an airport, which may reduce or eliminate access to our guns.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts about how to improve your safety in an airport environment, or other similar areas.
Know the Terrain, Assess the Risks
From a security perspective, an airport is divided into two kinds of areas—the sterile and non-sterile areas. The sterile area is where access is controlled, such as the part of the passenger terminal that’s inside of security screening, or the outdoor areas inside of fenced checkpoints, such as the aircraft ramp or baggage sorting stations. The non-sterile area is anywhere that access is uncontrolled, such as the passenger loading and unloading zone outside the terminal, baggage claim, the ticket counters, and the security queue.
While it’s tempting for people to think about airports as “high security” environments, the truth is that there are vast differences between the security afforded in sterile and non-sterile areas. In the non-sterile areas, the public can come and go at will, and bring anything they want into the area with little fear of detection. For example, it’s easy to drive a car full of explosives right up to the curb (as an attacker planned to do at Los Angeles International Airport, on 1 January 2000, before he was caught at the Canadian border a few weeks prior to the attack), or walk into the ticketing or baggage claim areas with hidden weapons (as an attacker did at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, in July 2002). The lack of a significant police presence in many non-sterile areas even permits an individual to penetrate far into the airport environment with openly-carried weapons, as we saw in the November 2013 Los Angeles International Airport attack, where the attacker shot his way past the security checkpoint with a rifle before he finally encountered the police.
The sterile areas are not immune from attack, but the likelihood of an armed attack is reduced because screening protocols make it more difficult (not impossible, just more difficult) to get a capable weapon inside. Additionally, the risk of detection is higher because fences, gates and checkpoints must first be breached, raising the possibility that the attacker will be caught or an alarm will be sounded.
This is not necessarily the deterrent that you might think it is, because an attacker can easily breach the boundary, penetrate into the environment, and hit the target before armed responders can confront him, even if an alarm is promptly initiated. For example, an attacker could sprint past unarmed exit lane monitors, quickly access the sterile area, and have minutes to attack before armed security confronted him. Similarly, attackers can easily crash a service gate or drive through a vehicle checkpoint without stopping, drive onto the ramp, and launch an attack on aircraft or the terminal before they are intercepted. If suitable uniforms, credentials, and marked vehicles are used (all easily obtainable through theft or forgery), then attackers may not be detected at all before they strike.
Additionally, if you’ve been paying attention to the news in the last months, you’ve seen some reporting that indicates an incredibly high failure rate for airport security screening. In one test at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, screeners failed to detect 95% of the prohibited items that were carried through by federal agents posing as travelers, including drugs, weapons, and explosives.
So, it’s important to fix this in your mind: While an attack within the sterile area is less likely than an attack in the non-sterile area, either is entirely possible. As a result, you need to maintain a good level of awareness when you’re at the airport, no matter where you are. You don’t get to relax and go into “Condition White” just because you’re on the backside of TSA screening.
Borders and Transition Zones
It’s especially important for you to have a high level of awareness when you approach “borders” and “transition zones” at airports. For our purposes here, we’ll define “borders” as the division between sterile and non-sterile areas, and “transition zones” as the immediate areas on either side of that border.
For example, when you’re standing in the queue to go through security screening, you’re in a transition zone leading up to the border between the non-sterile area that you’re presently in, and the sterile area on the other side of security. Similarly, when you’re exiting the main terminal into the baggage claim area, you’re transiting from the sterile to the non-sterile area.
When you’re in the non-sterile side of the transition zone, you need to be especially alert for attackers that are getting ready to smash up against the security roadblock from your side of the border. The transition zone can easily become the epicenter of an attack, because a large number of people are concentrated here and the security apparatus can make it more difficult to go any further if you’re armed. Because most people in the security queue are focused on activity ahead, they are unlikely to detect an armed attacker approaching from their rear until the attack is already underway. Don’t allow yourself to become so absorbed in the action at the screening checkpoint, that you ignore the most likely and least defended avenue of approach to your rear.
When you’re in the sterile side of the transition zone, you need to be alert for the same reasons. You are transiting from an area with a higher level of security to one that may not be secured at all, so you need to make a conscious effort to increase your level of awareness as you enter this higher threat area. Pay even closer attention to the people in your environment, and what they are doing. Look around for the things in your environment that pose a potential threat, such as the unattended suitcase near the door, the unattended car at the curb, or the guy with the rifle walking through the door.
Since it’s important to control public access to certain areas in the airport environment, there are many doors that are either locked or alarmed. There are also many areas that are simply posted as “off limits” to the public, without much to actually block your entry.
Because it would be problematic for us to violate these boundaries in normal circumstances, there’s a tendency to dismiss and ignore them as viable escape paths when danger arises. We need to guard against this tendency and force ourselves to consider all of these possibilities when the balloon goes up.
For example, if an attack happens while you’re in the sterile area of the terminal, don’t hesitate to exit through alarmed doors that lead to service areas or the ramp. Don’t hesitate to enter a jet way door that’s open (the airplane at the end can become a “lifeboat,” or you can run out onto the ramp) or hop the counter of a restaurant so you can exit out through the kitchen and service hallways.
If you’re in the baggage claim area, you can run outside through traditional exits, but you can also go through the curtains where the conveyor belts bring your luggage in from outside, or you can run back into the sterile area of the terminal through the exit lane. If you’re near the ticket counters, you can hop them and follow the conveyor belt to flee through the service areas behind the counter.
Some doors may require an airport badge or passcode to open. Encourage airport employees (gate agents, wheelchair pushers, restaurant workers, etc.) to open them for you and follow you outside to safety if they seem hesitant to do so. If necessary, take the airport badge of a fallen casualty, so you can swipe open electronic locks yourself.
Following these tips will certainly violate security protocols, but that’s the least of your concerns in an Active Shooter or terror attack. In the 2013 attack in Los Angeles, thousands of passengers fled outside onto the aircraft ramp from the terminals (even from adjacent, but unaffected terminals), and it took the better part of the day to round everyone up, rescreen them, and resecure the airport so that flight operations could resume. Some passengers who fled outside even made it to the fence line at the far end of the airfield, crossing active taxiways and runways in the process! It was a huge mess and inconvenience for security personnel, but the important point is this—none of those passengers who violated security protocols got shot by the bad guy. The best way to avoid getting shot is to not be there, after all.
When you’re in an environment where you can’t be armed with a traditional weapon, the police become an even more critical asset to ensure your safety. Unfortunately, law enforcement personnel are typically absent in most parts of the non-sterile area. There may be a uniformed officer directing traffic outside the terminal or ticketing cars that are left in the loading zone unattended, but most police officers will be found near border checkpoints, or on the inside of security, in the sterile zone. This means that one of your most important defensive assets is unlikely to be in the area where the threat is highest.
In the event that the tactical circumstances prevent you from escaping or finding suitable cover, your best defense may lie in aggressively counterattacking the suspect. To do this, you’ve got to be mindful of the assets available to you, and be ready to practice the art of “environmental arming.”
For example, the fire extinguisher on the wall can be used as a weapon to blind an attacker from a short distance, or to club him up closer. A soda cooler or a bookrack can supply missiles to throw at an attacker, to distract him from targeting innocents or completing a reload. A rolled magazine, wine bottle, or golf club can be used as an impact weapon. Densely-packed suitcases might become useful shields that are capable of deflecting edged weapons, or stopping handgun bullets or shotgun pellets (or at least robbing them of most of their destructive energy). Metal luggage carts, crutches, skis, chairs, or luggage can be used to help immobilize and pin an attacker, making it more difficult for him to use an edged or impact weapon.
Almost anything in your environment can be used as a tool or weapon, if you have the proper mindset to recognize it, and the will to aggressively use it. Few, if any, of these makeshift tools will be as effective as a firearm, but all of them are better alternatives to relying upon the mercy of an attacker. Force of numbers and appropriate timing (strike as the threat is reloading?) will help to maximize the use of these less efficient weapons.
Free States and Battlefield Pickups
We should recognize that there are many states where the possession of a concealed weapon in the non-sterile areas of an airport is entirely lawful. In these states, an armed citizen with the appropriate concealed carry permit may travel freely in places like the loading and unloading zone at the curb, or the baggage claim area. As a result, it’s possible that you could be lawfully armed with your firearm at the moment an airport is attacked.
Additionally, it’s possible you could find yourself in a position where you have access to a firearm that was dropped by a wounded attacker or police officer—the so-called, “battlefield pickup.”
In either of these situations, it’s vitally important to remember that other responders won’t be able to see your halo, or read your “Good Guy” nametag when they arrive on scene, so you have to act in a manner that will discourage fratricide among the friendlies.
For example, it’s probably wise to avoid “running to the sound of the guns” with your weapon out and exposed. If you came across a uniformed or plainclothes police officer who was also responding, then you could easily be mistaken for an attacker. As an armed citizen, you have no obligation to hunt down and confront the threat, so you’re probably better off using your weapon to protect yourself, and the people you’re responsible for, as you make your escape from danger. Use your weapon to defend against dangers that you encounter while running away from the sound of the guns, but don’t go looking for trouble.
As you make your escape, keep your firearm as concealed as possible. If there’s no visible or likely threat along your escape path, then keeping your gun holstered will help you to avoid being mistaken for the “man with a gun” that police are looking for. If the tactical circumstances warrant that you move with a gun in your hand, it’s still possible to conceal it by putting the hand and gun in a pocket or the open top of a shoulder bag, camouflaging it with a coat draped over your arm, or simply leaving it in the holster under your garments while you move with your grip already established (especially if it’s carried in places where this looks more natural, such as the appendix position). If none of these are suitable, then move with the gun by the side of your leg and pointed down (which is hardly noticeable in many situations, especially in the swirling mess of a panicked crowd), or at the low ready in front of you, with your trigger finger in a safe place away from the trigger, so that it’s clear you’re not threatening innocents. Bad guys move with their guns pointed at innocents and their finger on the trigger, and good guys don’t. Your safe and professional gun handling may be the key to making an armed responder pause as he assesses whether or not you need to be shot.
If the circumstances dictate that you should take cover and hold your position, then choose a location that’s defensible and allows you a good view of the approach to your location. Try to put your back to a wall, or at least choose a spot that makes it difficult for someone to flank you without your notice. These practices will not only keep you safe from attackers, but from responders who might mistake you for the armed threat.
If you have to shoot an attacker, don’t approach them after they’re down. It’s extremely dangerous, and you also don’t want to be standing over a body with gun in hand when the police come running around the corner. It’s probably best to keep moving towards safety (this is not a typical defensive encounter, where flight may be interpreted as guilt), but if you feel like you have to stop and cover the downed suspect, take up a defensive position where you have suitable cover and a good view of the suspect and all avenues of approach. Loudly warn others about the potential threat and encourage them to stay away.
Calling the police to identify yourself as an armed good guy on scene is usually recommended in public situations where you’ve deployed your gun, but don’t count on the information being received by those who need it. The volume of calls generated in an event like this may prohibit you from getting through at all, and even if you’re able to pass along your message to the harried emergency operator, it’s almost certain that the information won’t get out to the officers in the field, or it won’t be remembered by them in the chaos. Your behavior is going to be the most important defense you have against fratricide.
Of course, if police contact is imminent, then it would be wise to put the gun away before they show up, if you can. If you’re actually confronted by the police, then drop your gun and comply with their commands. Coordinate all movements with the police before you make them, and do everything slowly. Let them take you into custody and sort out your good guy status later, after the guns are put away and emotions aren’t running so high.
If all of this sounds familiar to you, that’s good. These are the same actions you should take as an armed citizen anytime you have to access your weapon in public.
The Final Weapon
Steinbeck wrote that, “The final weapon is the brain. All else is supplemental.”
This is true in all conflict, but even more so in a conflict that occurs where you have been disarmed by security protocols, such as in an airport. Your awareness and your ability to detect and avoid threats is always critical to your survival, but when you’re deprived of the ability to carry and use a suitable weapon as a last resort, then these functions take on even more importance.
So keep your head up and stay alert. Don’t get buried in your phone or computer. Stay extra alert when you transit borders, or are forced to linger in prime target areas.
You may not have your gun with you, but you’ve always got your brain. Use it, like the powerful weapon that it is.
Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Mike Wood is a Network member and the author of Newhall Shooting: A Tactical Analysis, the definitive work on the watershed 1970 California Highway Patrol shooting that revolutionized law enforcement training and tactics. Please see the website at www.newhallshooting.com for more information on the book and Mike’s other articles. You can also see Mike’s work at https://www.policeone.com/columnists/Mike-Wood/ and RevolverGuy.com. In addition to being an author, he is also an NRA LE Division certified firearms instructor for sworn and non-sworn students.
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