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Thoughts on Aviation Security: Detecting Suspicious Behaviors

By Kelly Hoggan

TSA has long trained its security officers to watch for suspicious passenger behaviors.

A Transportation Security Administration passenger screening checkpoint is probably the most visible aspect of aviation security at any given U.S. commercial airport. TSA’s efforts in preventing threats to air travelers and the planes on which they fly are also buttressed by a wide array of other security personnel in both the public and private sectors. What all these security professionals have in common is that they regularly receive training aimed at helping them recognize potentially troubling passenger behaviors and then doing something about it.


Detecting Suspicious Behaviors


It’s known that people trying to hide something often behave in odd ways that display their guilt, so having trained security professionals who can detect suspicious behavior is vital to aviation security. A February 2018 article at the Aviation Security International website discusses how TSA does in fact field security officers trained in what’s called “behavior detection.” Those officers inconspicuously interact with passengers at checkpoints and observe them for signs of suspicious behavior.


Verbal and Non-Verbal Indicators


Typically, TSA security officers look for what the article describes as a “combination of verbal and non-verbal indicators” given off by passengers behaving suspiciously. Using those indicators, officers can evaluate a traveler and refer them for additional or enhanced security screening at the checkpoint, if it’s called for. Generally, enhanced screening includes a brief interview of the passenger by TSA security officers and a deeper look at any carryon bags they may have. If everything checks out, passengers are then allowed to enter the terminal’s secure concourse and head for their flight. Those travelers still considered a higher risk by TSA officers undergo intervention by law enforcement personnel or similar security agents before they’re allowed to fly.


Training Security Personnel


TSA and other public and private sector aviation security agencies and organizations use a wide variety of techniques to train their personnel to effectively pick out air traveler behaviors that matter. According to the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, the agency has been training its personnel to detect suspicious behaviors for more than a decade now. The training programs have gone by different names over the years, including “Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques” (SPOT), “Behavior Detection and Analysis” (BDA) and now “Optimized Behavior Detection.”


In the private sector, aviation security consultants also offer different types of behavior detection training to their clients depending on their needs. As any good policer officer can tell you, people up to no good sometimes give the game away by how they speak and look and act. Given these facts, having TSA security officers and other personnel who can effectively and quickly detect such behaviors makes eminent sense.


Heading Off Trouble


Behavior detection is but one component of the layered security approach which serves to prevent threats to air travelers and commercial airliners. A good reason for training aviation security personnel to observe a traveler’s behavior is that terrorists are constantly looking for new and innovative ways to penetrate security and do harm. There’s also no doubt that technology such as machines that physically screen passengers and baggage is crucial to security, given the millions of travelers worldwide who fly daily. But it’s also equally vital that security officers be skilled at on-the-spot assessment of passenger behaviors, because it’s far better to catch threats to airliners and passengers while both are on the ground than to have to confront trouble while flying thousands of feet in the air.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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