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Assuring airport and airline safety for staffers

In last week's article, we considered the important topic of residential safety for corporate staff. This week a second, equally vital topic of assuring, as far as practically possible, the safety of staff when travelling overseas on business or vacations is discussed.

We are again drawing on the valuable guidelines developed by Mike Ackerman and his Asia Regional Representative Chuck Krueger as well as our own direct experience in security situations.

So what should the perceptive traveller do or avoid in order to travel as safely as possible?

Before the trip

Choosing the airline carrier of a non-confrontational nation is always a wise step, as well as avoiding airlines with poor safety records. Airlines with poor financial performance run risks of cost cutting and less competent staffing, as the best crew members are unlikely to choose the worst employers. But even the most outstanding carriers can suffer mishaps, so full, unconditional insurance coverage is essential, and should be checked for validity prior to travel.

Safety experts recommend pre-reservation of seating near to over-wing emergency exits. Window seats, rather than aisle seats, are recommended, as it is on aisles that the action tends to happen.

Items in hand-luggage or on the person should not be controversial. Such items may include membership cards or literature considered offensive by any minority group, as well as expensive jewellery. It is best to be "one of the crowd", rather than potentially singled out for special treatment in the event of incidents.

Staffers should be warned about carrying other sensitive materials on their persons or in checked or hand luggage. These would include narcotics, or items that could be mistaken for such, certain pharmaceuticals that may be banned or restricted in destination countries, as well as counterfeit branded goods, especially watches or garments, and items derived from CITES-protected species. The latter would include such items as ivory or amulets made from tiger teeth, readily available in Thailand but potentially creating criminal liability if introduced into many other countries.

At the airport

Although airline security is nowadays increasingly high, airport security tends to be at a lower level. With increasing difficulty of perpetrating terrorist attacks on board aircraft, attacks in airports are increasingly common. The best solution is to spend minimum time in public areas, and head as soon as possible for security-controlled departure areas. However such departure areas cannot be guaranteed to be absolutely safe, so one needs to remain vigilant, stay clear of situations where any kind of incident appears to be occurring, and watch out for suspicious situations or individuals.

Where online check-in facilities are available, it is best to use these service, as it greatly reduces the time to be spent in public areas. In the case of short trips, having only carry-on luggage further reduces such formalities and time, both on departure and return. Likewise obtaining stocks of departure / arrival immigration forms, and filling out in advance, will further minimise time in public areas. Travellers need to be particularly vigilant against thieving in airports, whether public areas or departure/arrival areas. Checked luggage is also at risk and should be protected as best possible. Disappearance of items from checked luggage is extremely common and hard to detect, especially since departure airports blame thefts upon arrival airports, and vice-versa. Travellers should always refuse to carry items on behalf of others, especially strangers, as these may be illicit items.

Destination locations: arrival and hotels

If business travellers are to be greeted at destination airports, there should be very clear identification of each party to the other, to avoid risk of deliberate or accidental mistaken identity. If taking public taxi services, these should always be from registered booths with clear definition of destination before commencing the journey. It is inadvisable to share taxis with other unknown persons and one should never permit the driver to have a colleague also travel in the taxi. That extra person may be an accomplice in crime.

Hotels should be pre-selected before departure, with advance bookings. There should be emphasis on secure locations. Hotel rooms should be checked on arrival for access to fire escapes, protective door locks, and inaccessibility of balconies from adjoining rooms or other balconies. Much crime takes place in hotels, even prestige-branded ones, so one needs to be constantly vigilant.

Hotel rooms, even in high-grade establishments, are not necessarily safe havens. Although hotel workers are usually vetted by the establishment's security, theft from hotel rooms is not uncommon and if occurring should always be reported to hotel management, and, if possible, to local police or tourist authorities. The hotel management will usually fail to detect the thief and avoid reporting the theft to the local authorities for fear of attracting a bad reputation for the establishment. As a result of non-reporting, such internal thefts will continue. Thefts are often perpetrated not by regular cleaners, who will always be the prime suspects, but rather by occasional entrants to the rooms, such as repair staff.

In some countries, business travellers will be under surveillance by internal security, using hotel staff as investigators. When leaving a hotel room, items such as briefcases or computers should be taken with the traveller or else, if this is inconvenient, devices should be used to identify whether these sensitive items have been investigated. These should include security locks and alarm devices. In cases where experienced, security-trained travellers have deliberately left briefcases or computers in hotel rooms when going outside, they have frequently found that such items have been tampered with, successfully or otherwise.

In some countries, hotel rooms, meeting rooms and even public areas may be monitored, whether by audio or video means or both. Business travellers need to be prepared for this eventually, and conduct internal business discussions as well as external negotiations with vigilance. There are many cases where negotiators have come to the negotiating table, only to discover that their counterparts were already fully appraised of their strategies, strengths and weaknesses because of surreptitious monitoring of previous internal discussions.

For staff that regularly travel to represent companies overseas, participation in preparatory courses is recommended. Such courses should include travel safety and security, protective measures, 24/7 vigilance, counter-espionage, and what to do in cases of hijacking, terrorism attacks and kidnapping. The travel world is not becoming safer and one needs to be ready to meet the challenges before they arise.

Christopher F. Bruton, over 46 years in Thailand, is Executive Director of Dataconsult Ltd, a local consultancy. He can be reached at Dataconsult's Thailand Regional Forum provides meetings, seminars and extensive documentation to update business on present and future trends in Thailand and in the Mekong Region.