Terrorist Attack at Airports

Terrorist Attack at Airports: Five Simple Tips to Decrease Your Exposure and Make Flying Suck Less

April 24, 2017
by Dale Antry

Flying; it has always been a dream of mine to break free from the bonds of gravity and soar through the skies. When I first joined the Army, I wanted to be a helicopter pilot but my eyesight and a less than scrupulous recruiter kept me from pursuing that dream. As a small child, my family and I never flew very much. In fact, I can only remember one vacation that involved air travel. It wasn’t until after I joined the military did I begin to travel by air more frequently, albeit from the passenger seat. These days, I’m on a plane once or twice a month.

I’ve never been overly concerned about traveling by air. Sure, you hear about those rare incidents when a plane must make an emergency landing or when a catastrophic failure occurs that causes a plane to crash. But the Federal Aviation Administration and other regulatory agencies made mechanical failures virtually non-existent by putting into place sound procedural methodology along with rules and safety precautions that govern air traffic safety. I would much rather take my chances in the air than on the ground sharing the roadway with crazy or impaired drivers in mechanically unsafe vehicles.

What seems to be more pervasive in commercial air travel than in commercial ground travel, however, is the threat of a terrorist attack.

Terrorist have made this mode of mass public transit a favorite target of theirs, most likely due to the large kill rate and media hysteria it creates. Now, as it appears the United States of America is becoming more aggressive in the fight against international terrorism, some travelers may (and possibly should) be concerned that future terror attacks at airports could occur.

I wish I had a crystal ball, into which I could gaze, and provide you assurance that it won’t happen. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case. What I can tell you is there are several things you can do that will increase your chance of survival in the event a terror attack does occur. I can also tell you that preparing to survive an attack begins with understanding the threat and the vulnerabilities that exist in air travel.

When I was stationed overseas in the early 1990’s, part of the Army’s Force Protection Plan was a mandate requiring soldiers to endure mundane training so that when traveling, both internationally and domestically, the chances of being involved in any type of terrorist event were reduced. It was basically “Stranger Danger” and “See Something, Say Something” on steroids. Yet all these years later, I still remember at least two of the recommendations that came from those training sessions; Book your hotel room on the second or third floor and always try to get a window seat on an airplane. The third floor of a hotel offers the best protection as it is too high for people to climb through the window and still low enough to allow for an escape through a window. You may break a bone but would likely survive the fall. Sitting in a window seat on an airplane makes it difficult for a terrorist to pluck you from all the passengers and hold you as a hostage during a hijacking.

These remain good practices for travelers. However, the airline industry, since the attacks on 9/11, have reduced the number of vulnerabilities that allow terrorists to board and hijack aircraft. Likewise, just as terrorists now exploit other vulnerabilities in the airline industry, so too has the threat to the traveler changed. Before 9/11, the most dangerous place to be was on the aircraft itself.

In today’s environment, the most dangerous places are the unsecure areas of the main terminal from the security checkpoint back to the main entrance and the baggage claim area.

These areas are considered the most dangerous because they are the most vulnerable areas where a terrorist can easily carry out an attack using small arm weapons, vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) or other improvised explosive devices (IED). Understanding this concept is the first and most important aspect to prepare yourself for surviving an attack.

The second-best thing you can do is avoid those areas as much as possible. After all, the easiest way to survive a terrorist attack is not to be where the attack occurs. Unfortunately, complete avoidance is usually not an option because navigating the security checkpoint is part of the boarding process. You can, however, prepare yourself both physically and mentally so that you position yourself to speed through these areas and out of the danger zone as quickly as possible. Here are five things you can do both prior to going through the security checkpoint and after leaving the secured area once at your destination.

  1. Pack Lightly: Before packing, take a few minutes to think about what it is you need as opposed to what you would like to take. You would be surprised how many days’ worth of clothes you can fit into a carry-on size piece of luggage. If you can pack everything you need into two carry-on size pieces of luggage you can forgo checking any luggage. This will decrease the time you spend in the danger zones at both your port of departure and arrival.
  2. Use Curbside Check-in: If you absolutely must bring luggage that is too large to carry on the plane, consider using the curbside check-in available at most airports. Terrorists usually target large crowds. By using the curbside check-in service, you can avoid the crowds at the ticket counter and move directly to the security checkpoint once you enter the main terminal.
  3. Prep Carry-on Luggage: This can be accomplished either before you get to the airport or while you are waiting in the security checkpoint line (and likely complaining about how long it’s taking). If you have carry-on luggage, empty your pockets and place everything but your boarding pass (cell phone if you use an electronic boarding pass) and ID in your carry-on. If you know you will have to remove items from your bag, have them near the top or in a location where you can quickly remove them once you arrive at the screening checkpoint. If you don’t have luggage, conduct a physical inventory of your pockets and make sure that you have everything in one location so that you can easily remove the contents and place them in the bowl for examination. Quickly check yourself one last time before stepping through the metal detector. Nothing slows down the process like having to be re-screened because you forgot to take something out of your pocket.
  4. Don’t Sand Near the Baggage Carousel: This goes back to what was saying earlier about standing in crowds. Waiting by the carousel is not going to make your bags arrive any faster. I like to stand back by the exit where I can watch. When my bag arrives, I walk up to the carousel, grab my bag and leave. Standing near an exit will allow you to escape the building in an emergency. If there is a structural column nearby, I usually stand near, or even against it, as they are typically blast reinforced. If the bullets start to fly, at least I can get behind cover.
  5. Pre-arrange Transportation: If you have someone that is picking you up upon your arrival, let them know exactly what time your plane is scheduled to arrive and provide them with updates if possible should the time change. Most airports I fly from have “Cell Phone Lots” where your ride can wait. If you have no checked bags, call them as soon as you disembark your plane so they are waiting outside as you leave the building. If you do have checked bags, be ready to call or text them as soon as pull your bags from the carousel.

Remember, the best way to survive an attack at the airport, or anywhere else for that matter, is to not be where the attack occurs. Since the areas in an airport which provide public access are the most vulnerable to attacks, you want to minimize the time you spend there. By following these five simple tips, you can greatly reduce the amount of time spent in the danger zone and reduce the likelihood that you will be involved in terrorist attack at the airport.


Dale is the Chief Operating Officer at Chester Security Group (CSG) and its subsidiary company, Black Tree LLC. CSG is a veteran owned small business dedicated to empowering others through comprehensive threat assessments and training in a multitude of physical and personal protection disciplines. Its subsidiary, Black Tree, specializes in situational awareness training and weapons handling. To learn more about CSG or Black Tree or sign up for a course of instruction, please visit their websites at csgblacktree.com or blacktreeexperience.com