We have to pack our liquids into one-quart bags to guard against chemical attacks on airplanes. We are forced to take off our shoes so security can check for small bombs. But airport security officials are also concerned about risks at a place few of us spend much time: at the perimeter of the airport.
While there are cameras watching the edges of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, officials say there's no substitute for eyes and ears. Police at some world airports, including MSP, are recruiting volunteers to help boost security against possible attacks.
Five years ago, the airport police at MSP joined a few dozen airports in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia to form the International Airport Watch Association. Each airport recruits volunteers who sign up to patrol areas in and around the airport. The Twin Cities area has about 90 members.
The volunteers look for open or unlocked fences or people who are in places they shouldn't be. The goal is to prevent people from breaching the airport's border and sneaking in to tamper with planes, or even launch a surface to air missile.
"Basically anywhere you go where there's a fence line, it's vulnerable," said MSP police sergeant Dave Satre. "Anytime you put something up to keep people out, people are trying to find ways to get around it."
Then there are people who get lost and wander into the deserted crevices of the airport property. That's especially problematic for MSP, which is adjacent to a military facility, the MSP Airport Reserve base, which has secure areas. "The military don't want people looking at them, period. So we have to be sensitive to that," said Satre.
But Satre doesn't want to scare people by spreading cops along the airport's perimeter -- which at one point adjoins a popular dog park. Satre said a civilian presence is less threatening.
"Someone sees a police car, sees a police uniform, they're going to go someplace else. They might feel comfortable seeing someone in a light blue shirt and think, 'Well maybe I can go around that person -- he just works for FedEx or he works for whoever, not knowing what the shirt is," he said.
Once a year, airports with Airport Watch chapters organize a summit for members. Chicago has hosted the previous gatherings. This past weekend, the annual summit was at MSP. Speakers from the FBI and the TSA outlined threat assessments. In one session a federal official passed around inactive missiles and displayed a rocket so volunteers could recognize the weapons or their component parts, but he said they weren't found in the U.S. and he specified there was no local threat from those items.
At lunch, a group of about 40 airport watch volunteers -- mostly men in their 50 and 60s -- gathered around tables. Many wore the light blue polo shirt that's the MSP watch volunteer uniform. Several of them are pilots. Others, like Ray Pittman, are photographers. Pittman, a former state employee turned professional freelance aviation magazine photographer, was the third person to join MSP's watch program. Pittman used to spend hours staking out the airport's outskirts waiting for a good shot. Through his membership Pittman now gets early notice of when rare planes are arriving. Membership gets him access to restricted areas, some that provide good camera angles.
"In the past when you come out here you'd always get shooed away by the airport police," Pittman said. "You would never get shots like some of us guys get if you're just a normal, everyday person."
Pittman says he often finds people who say they're lost. "Generally they're not there for any bad intentions, but you never know."
The volunteers are trained to call in incidents rather than confront anyone. Volunteers haven't exposed any dangerous crimes or terrorist attempts so far, but people who report security gaps get a reward of up to $50 and are entered into a $500 annual drawing. An MSP watch member recently received an award for finding an airport perimeter fence unlocked. And watch member Scott Coulter says he saw something once.
"I actually had witnessed somebody with a ladder up against the fence, behind some trees," he said. "And there was a lady climbing the ladder and of course I called it in and they said thanks, there's actually a test going on right now, and you happened to see it."
Others are drawn to volunteering out of a sense of national pride. Arlene Henderson, who heads security for her church, is recruiting volunteers for a new Anoka airport watch chapter and says five people in her civil air patrol squadron have already filled out applications.
"I seem to have some gene in me that wants to protect. There are those of us who are willing to stand up and say 'not on my watch.'"
Some people who fill out an application to volunteer don't make it through a background check. Watch members can't have a criminal record. And MSP watch coordinator Officer Jolynn Christianson said some members have been let go for acting inappropriately or breaking rules. She said when airport security employees asked some volunteers to move out of an area, they protested.
"We want them to be as professional as possible so that the program keeps getting funded and we can keep the program successful," she said.
Each airport funds its own volunteer program. MSP's is funded by the Metropolitan Airports Commission.