Some Thoughts on Airport Watch Programs

Yesterday, CNN published a piece on their website chronicling Chicago's ORD Airport Watch program.  Some poor word choices by the author aside, it is always great to see planespotters getting some positive attention in the mainstream media as it helps the general public better understand our passion for what we do. This article was no exception, though judging by the description given of how the program works I have some very mixed feelings on the program itself.

I have always been a firm believer that photography is not a crime, and that photographers should not be treated as criminals.  Sure there are some things that should not be photographed, however airplanes are not one of them.  I am also a firm believer that spotters can be a valuable security asset to local law enforcement.  We know what we're looking at and can 'talk the talk.'  If something doesn't seem right, we are knowledgeable enough to know it and I for one wouldn't hesitate to contact local law enforcement if I noticed something that wasn't right.  I think that having programs that actively encourage spotters to keep a watchful eye and if they 'see something, say something' are incredibly beneficial.  However there is a point where the line gets crossed  for me between when I'm helping out and when I become the one being scrutinized.

I have no problem carrying an ID card or even being background checked.  These programs entail close cooperation with law enforcement and they should know who they're working with. However participation should be voluntary at all times. If I choose not to take part in the program, that should in no way affect my ability to practice my hobby as I do today. Moreover if I do choose to participate in the program as a whole, there should be no requirement to participate on a day-to-day basis. I'm bothered by the idea of a group member being booted from the program because he chose not to participate on a particular day. So what should I get for joining such a program? How about instant recognition as not being a threat to start? Showing my card can be instant proof that I have been vetted and that I belong there. Perhaps it can even mean that we are allowed to park along fence lines and go other places outside of the fence where the public might not normally be allowed such as parking lots, so long as we are not impeding the flow of traffic or otherwise creating a nuisance or hazard. 

Reporting exactly where we will be and when? Well that surely won't work and really serves little purpose. I can change my location several times in a day of spotting depending on the time of day, runway usage, and where specific aircraft are operating. Logging in and saying that I'll be around the airport today? Sure I'm fine with that. In fact, make that list open to the rest of the group so everybody can see who else is out and about that day. Aviation is a social hobby after all. 

When we get into the orange safety vests, I'm not torn at all: they're more or less pointless. First off, they look pretty darn silly. Personally, I do just fine in the dorkiness department and don't need an additional piece of clothing to further illustrate that fact. Additionally and more importantly, in most places making a call to 911 requires that an officer respond to check it out.  There would likely be minimal benefits if any in terms of officer productivity as they would still need to come by and check us out.

Another area in which I'm not torn at all are the regular meetings between the airport watch volunteers and representatives from local law enforcement, the FBI, and the TSA.  I think meetings like these are a great idea! Law enforcement and TSA can keep the spotters up to date on the latest threats and things to pay particular attention to.  Meanwhile, it gives the spotters a forum to air any issues that they have with law enforcement.  For a program like this to work, there has to be a certain level of trust between all parties as well as an open line of communication.

In a perfect world, programs like these are not needed. There should be an understanding by law enforcement that spotters are an asset and not a threat to security, while spotters should realize that they know better than most when something's not right and make the call.  However failing that a program such as this, properly and carefully implemented, can be beneficial to everybody.  I will continue to advocate that spotters are a security asset deserving of some amount of teamwork with law enforcement instead of constantly being adversarial as is often the case now.