By Bruce Alexander
Contributed by Joe Hemmer and Steve Mann of Aviation Facilities Security Group
There’s an old adage that the trouble with traveling is that you have to come home. Not true. The trouble with traveling is luggage; and human luggage is the worst type.
The first thing you have to understand, when escorting a principal, is what your real situation is. Are you making the arrangements? Are you making all of them? Is there an Advance Agent or Administrative Assistant involved? Is corporate handling all of this? Who is taking you to the airport? Is there a luggage service? Who is meeting you and what are the ground transportation arrangements upon arrival?
Traveling is stressful enough but being responsible for you and a protectee is even more frustrating. It’s like flying with the kids … but on steroids. There are many potential pitfalls in air travel and having a protectee along increases the risks exponentially.
This is the first in a two part series dealing with executive protection and air travel. Part one addresses an issue that me and many of my security colleagues have faced concerning commercial air travel.
Do think VIP’s travel commercial? Mid-level politicians and celebrities love commercial travel. It provides both public exposure and a means of denying that they have lost touch with the “common-man.” It also complies with the Unites States Government’s travel requirements and it presents some additional challenges.
Once all the ground transportation, luggage and ticketing is taken care of, there is still the specter of what’s actually going to happen at the airport. This is where a little preparation and a lot of patience pays off and a good trip can make or break you in this profession.
Trust no one … is the mantra of any good agent-in-charge and is the cardinal lesson in air travel. Even if you are not responsible for making the arrangements, confirm them yourself with the service providers. Corporate may tell you that everything is arranged but until I personally speak to the ticket agent, the car service, limo driver, luggage van driver, parking control officer, etc, etc … the hair on my neck is going to remain vertical.
If you are responsible for making the arrangements, use a certified travel agent. In addition to making the travel itinerary and securing the tickets, travel agents can arrange ground transportation, luggage transportation and special assistance for you once you arrive at the airport. Remember, once they tell you everything is handled, you should follow up behind them just like you would anyone else.
Get the information and get on the telephone. When possible get commitments from dispatchers and ticket agents about who, by name, is going to be the driver or take the luggage curbside. When possible talk to them, often and well in advance. Get their cell phone numbers and dispatcher contacts and make sure you have them with you when you get ready to leave.
Its easier to negotiate with a ticket agent over the telephone two days in advance than it is while you and your protectee are standing at the ticket counter ready to check in. This is definitely one of those circumstances where yelling “do you know who I am?” will get you absolutely, positively nowhere.
Ambassador Ed peck was my political tradecraft mentor and a legend within the State Department. Peck’s first postulate was, ‘no entity, government, individual or company has ever done anything that they didn’t perceive as being in their best interest at the time.’ Live it, learn it and use it to your advantage.
‘Prep’ the protectee and traveling party. Yes, the whole party. All the ‘strap-hangers’, administrative assistants, relatives and friends of relatives traveling with the protectee are going to fall into your lap. Incorporate them into your plan and rely on your protectee to garner their compliance. Your responsibility is ultimately the protectee, but anyone who has been in this business very long knows that you’ve just been promoted to ‘head den mother.’
No matter how experienced the travelers are, whenever possible have a short meeting with them well before the trip or write a short note addressing areas of concerns and specific information about times and itineraries. Everybody feels better when they know what’s going on. There are certain unique concerns at a commercial airport and a little advance preparation can cut down on a lot of trouble. Let them know that you appreciate their cooperation and that seemingly insignificant efforts on their part will make traveling much easier.
You’ll be traveling un-armed unless you fit in the narrowly defined Section 1544.219 of the TSA’s regulations. If you usually travel armed, make certain that your protectee understands this and explain to them what arrangements have been made as a result.
You need to mark the checked luggage of everyone in the traveling party. You see people tying bandanas and scarves to their luggage all the time to make them more easily identified. You want to do the same but in a more unique way. I’ve gone as far as having special luggage tags printed at the local stationary story and have resorted to something as simple as fluorescent colored ‘parts tags’ from the hardware store. Regardless of your system, make the tags easily recognizable to everyone in the party and unique to a specific trip. Make certain that everyone in the traveling party knows where there luggage is to be taken and precisely at what time.
Make your party aware of TSA regulations concerning gels and liquids in carry on luggage. Also acquire and use a ‘valuables carry-on case’. Your protectee’s luggage is going to the tarmac and while an Armani suit can be replaced, jewelry from Van Cleef & Arpels can’t. Such items should be placed in a hard sided Hardigg, Pelican or ‘Zero’ case of an approved size for carry on luggage and be taken on board. Consolidate everyone’s valuables into one case.
Either the protectee themselves or their highest-ranking administrative officer in the traveling party should be responsible for the valuables carry-on. Not you! Your job is to watch out for trouble and the statically most likely place for trouble to occur is at the security checkpoint. You don’t need to be humping luggage and should never become a bag carrier for the boss.
Unless you have absolute control over your traveling party, take along an 8 1/2 x 11 padded self-addressed envelope and make sure you have a $5 bill. Anything, except a weapon, that can’t get through security can be mailed back to you from the ‘drop boxes’ located at the security checkpoint. The supplies are available there, usually, but who wants to stand around while you look for a pen.
Your first telephone call should be to airport operations (Ops). That’s one of those small offices down those long hallways that you pass on your way to the bathroom. Like the public library, there’s a wealth of information and experience waiting inside. Ops can provide you with a map of the terminal and provide information about where vehicles can arrive, stage and depart as well as direct contact with a ticket agent physically located at the airport, information about luggage procedures and lounge contacts.
Ops exist to support and promote the airport. It’s in their best interest that you and your protectee have an enjoyable experience at their facility, lest you choose another airport next time. They also realize that irritating even the lowly State Congressman may have a detrimental effect on the reputation of the airport. Did I mention that the airport is named after the Congressman’s father? No one wants them on the Tonight Show talking about their horrible experience at the airport.
Ops can also assist you in formalizing a request with the airport police, should the need arise. Remember at a commercial airport, you’re going to be un-armed. If your request is approved, airport police can provide special parking arrangements and officers to accompany your protectee from curbside, through check-in, arrival at the TSA security checkpoint, and in some cases all the way to the gate.
Next talk to a ticket agent. Not the 800-number, but a real person who works at the airport you are using. Ops can give you their direct telephone number. You might be able to pre-arrange boarding passes, arrange special meals, get information about the use of lounge facilities and help in coordinating baggage.
Make sure the ticket agent knows whom you are and what you’re doing. This is no time for silly cloak and danger secrecy games. If someone really wanted to know your travel arrangements, there are easier ways than the ticket agent at the Roanoke airport. Ticket agents know who else is going to be on the plane.
Think it’s a good idea to escort your Saudi Prince on a flight to JFK when the Widows of 9/11 are onboard? How would the boss feel looking across the aisle at John Mark Karr? Let the ticket agent know. This is especially true on longer domestic and transcontinental flights because they’ll alert any Air Marshals to your protectee’s presence and location aboard the plane.
Ticket agents will be able to provide you more precise time estimates, because they know the totally number of departing flights. They can give you precise check in times and more reliable estimates about the length of time necessary to transit through the security checkpoint. In a commercial airport setting, the object is to get your protectee through the unsecured portions of the airport (i.e. curbside, ticketing, etc) through the security checkpoint and into the secured portion of the airport as quickly as possible. In short a good ticket agent can save you a lot of grief.
Airlines at larger airports have liaison personnel, akin to a cruise director. Mostly overlooked and seldom used, these angels of mercy, are often able to meet your party curbside and accompany you through the entire process. They are de facto professional airport advance agents. If available, they’ll guide you through the terminal, check-in, the security checkpoint and lounge with ease.
While many airports have discontinued fulltime curbside check in and luggage service, simply asking will generally result in, at a minimum, luggage assistance. A telephone call and a $20 tip, is well worth it when you’re dealing with 52 pieces of luggage. Let them know your coming and local baggage agents will be glad to assist, if for no other reason than that it makes their job that much easier.
Ever travel and see airline gate agents meeting unaccompanied minors upon their arrival? If you ask, they’ll do the same for you. At connecting airports, they can meet your party at the gate, escort you to the lounge, if time allows, or to your connecting gate. They can help with special needs such as wheel chairs and can even arrange for everyone to ride on the giant golf cart. This service should be requested through your originating airports ticket agent.
Regardless of whether or not you request transit service, make certain that you get a good map of the connecting airport while doing your advance work. There can be errors and the gate agent may not be there as expected. This most often occurs because of last minute gate changes, where the gate agent simply can’t make it from the ‘old’ gate to the ‘new’ gate in time.
The airline won’t even know the arrival gate until well after you are already in the air and may not know until after you are already on the ground, so you’re going to need to be prepared. You might find yourself reliant on that map to get you from your arrival gate, to the lounge or your connecting departure gate all on your own.
Well, you’re almost there … but what are you going to do when you get there? As part of your arrangements your going to have to know where to meet ground transportation, you should have a map of your destination airport to help you negotiate the route and you need a plan about how you’re going to deal with luggage. Is everyone going to stand around the carousel waiting on the luggage to be processed? There are really only four ways to handle luggage.
First, everyone, including the protectee waits for the luggage. The protectee may wait in the car and allow someone else to get their luggage for them, but most won’t and you have the additional problem of staging vehicles. Remember, your luggage is with theirs, and you may be reliant on your luggage to regain a weapon. If so you’re probably going to have to wait on your luggage. In this case, consider making use of the lounge and if necessary the assistance of airport police.
The second alternative is for the protectee to leave the airport and allow other members of the party to wait for the luggage, making you reliant on them for delivery. This doesn’t happen very frequently, usually only when the protectee has an immediate engagement that other members of the party are not attending or it’s a corporate party where there is a personal assistant or another corporate officer to take charge of the protectee’s luggage.
The third alternative is a luggage service.
While you can’t have someone check in your luggage, you can have someone pick it up. If you choose to use the airlines’ contract delivery service, you need to present yourself and the claim tickets to the ‘lost baggage counter’ and request luggage delivery. The airline representative will take you tickets and once processed, pull your bags for storage until the contract delivery service picks them up.
Technically the airline remains responsible for the luggage’s arrival. I’ve never had luggage ‘go missing’ as a result of this service, but I have seen airports where there wasn’t enough secure storage space and bags were simply stacked outside the door. This is something that your ticket agent can help arrange.
The fourth alternative is the use of your own delivery service. Many car services and transportations companies offer this service. In addition to being met by a driver, a dedicated delivery driver will also be present. You only need hand them the claim checks and then you can depart. The delivery driver will immediately remove you luggage from the carousel and return it directly. This option is much faster than the airline’s service and not much more expensive.
Congratulations … you’ve arrived, perhaps at home, but if not hopefully someone remembered to book you a room.
Steve Munn is a former Foreign Service Political Officer and Special Agent of the U.S. Department of State. Formerly assigned to the Protective Intelligence and Investigations Unit, he has been involved in hundreds of high profile anti-terrorism investigations and protective security details. He is currently the Chief Operating Officer for Aviation Facilities Security Group.