Mexican & U.S. Aviation Security

As allies and neighbors that share nearly two thousand miles of border land, there are many similarities between Mexico and the United States – and just as many differences. Mexican airports, including Benito Juárez Mexico City International Airport and Cancun International Airport, comply with U.S. Federal Aviation Administration specifications and have similar restrictions for carry-on items. Although there are similarities in the regulations themselves, the differences in their implementations at security checkpoints can be significant.

Mexican Security Efforts

At security checkpoints in Mexico, airports rely heavily on the personnel. Security regulations allow most passengers to keep their shoes on and place metallic items that they are carrying on a small tray. Depending on the individual and situation, security personnel also may ask passengers to remove their laptops and place them in large bins for x-ray inspection, or to step to the side for wanding with a handheld magnetometer. When the security personnel are professional and respectful, the passengers tend to remain calm throughout the process.

Despite the perceived lower level of security, though, a lot happens “behind the scenes” in the Mexican aviation security effort. Security agents constantly watch for telltale behavioral signs of distress or deceit among passengers entering the checkpoints. It is much easier to spot a nervous passenger when everyone else is calm. Mexican aviation security professionals take advantage of this environment on a daily basis by relying greatly on its people.

In addition, Mexican aviation authorities follow the core elements of the International Air Transport Association’s Security Management Systems for Air Transport Operators: senior management commitment; resource management; threat assessment and risk management; management of emergency and incidents (resilience); quality control and quality assurance; and aviation security program.

U.S. Security Efforts

In the United States, the aviation security environment is much different. After having the identifications checked and entering the airport’s security area, passengers encounter scanning equipment in a variety of shapes and sizes, remove their laptops and other electronic devices from their bags, take off their shoes, and remove their jackets. After placing metallic items in a bin with their other belongings for x-ray examination, they await their turns to move on to the body screening process.

Passengers then walk through a magnetometer or pause in a large tube while raising their hands above their heads. Not knowing what the machines see, detect, or take pictures of can make people who are normally calm exhibit behavioral patterns that security personnel could confuse with potential criminal indicators. After this, depending on the behavioral indicators they are exhibiting, security personnel may pull passengers aside to undergo additional screening. During the body-screening process, passengers are temporarily separated from their personal items. The increased possibility of forgetting or misplacing something also could compound passenger stress.

In the United States, the multiple layers of security to enhance aviation transportation security tend to rely more on machines than on people. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) acknowledges on its website that, “The suite of technology has grown considerably in the years since TSA took over airport security…. You may notice some new and unfamiliar machines at your local airports.” Security devices are more costly, and often perceived as more effective, than their human counterparts. Unfortunately, this perception may compound security problems at U.S. airports nationwide.

Training – An International Priority

Training all personnel, especially at the high level required for a truly robust aviation security program, is not easy and can be costly. This is as true in the United States as it is in Mexico. Effective training for personnel on the ground as well as in the air – in addition to advanced technology – creates a more robust, and more reliable, multilayered security environment.

Security managers and politicians in both countries should examine their own aviation security training programs. By training personnel to use observations to fill in the necessary security gaps and by establishing a culture of teamwork and reliance on personnel, the governments and security agencies in both the United States and Mexico could build a safer and more effective aviation transportation system.

Clay W. Biles is a former U.S. Federal Air Marshal (13 April 2008 to 3 June 2013). He currently lives and works in Mexico assisting high-risk personnel. He received the Distinguished Honor Graduate Award for his air marshal training , and from 2011 to 2012 served as the lead firearms instructor for the Service’s San Francisco Field Office. He is a former U.S. Navy corpsman, Stanford Medical Center researcher, and bodyguard (for President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan). His new book and first-hand account of the Federal Air Marshal Service will be available in August 2014.



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