Violent criminal activity and/or organised crime such as armed robberies, thefts, assaults and follow-home robberies at airports and in the surrounding areas have the potential to negatively impact flight crews. These incidents commonly occur either at the airport, at airport car parks or along highways leading to/from facilities.
While most criminal incidents tend to target travellers, aviation workers – including airport staff and airline crew – have been affected. Whether opportunistic or targeted, these violent crimes are often committed by armed criminals, posing a direct physical threat to the victims.
Furthermore, although petty crime affecting travellers and aircrew is a global phenomenon, some countries and airports are more affected, particularly in the Latin America and Caribbean region (LAC) and the United States. Amid this context, a wide variety of security incidents occurred in 2022 and the beginning of 2023. Recently, on 17 January, an airport security officer conducting a patrol was fatally shot and another injured when they encountered two armed men hijacking a vehicle near Durban's King Shaka International Airport (FALE/DUR) in South Africa. Throughout 2022, Osprey issued 120 alerts about violent criminality and/or organised crime that affected travellers and/or aviation operators worldwide, including 24 for the US, 21 for Colombia, 16 for Mexico, 10 for Nigeria, 7 for Haiti and 3 for India.
Criminal modus operandi
Criminals operating near airports commonly operate in groups of two to four people and frequently travel by motorcycle to facilitate their escape. In many cases, the criminals identify their victims at the airport, occasionally with the help of corrupt airport staff who supply criminals with information about potential victims.
For example, in Mexico, at the end of November, an individual was killed during a follow-home robbery, having exchanged MXN 200,000 for euros (EUR c.9,700) at Mexico City's Licenciado Benito Juarez International Airport (MMMX/MEX) shortly before the incident. Specifically, three armed individuals on a motorcycle followed a man who was travelling by car with his daughter from the airport before intercepting them in the Iztapalapa borough. The victim was shot when he and his daughter resisted demands to hand over their money. Following the incident, the head of Mexico City's Secretariat of Citizen Security (SSC) stated that should an employee of the airport's currency exchange be involved, they would be dealt with; however, there was no initial evidence to suggest that this was the case.
??Un conductor particular murió a balazos luego que presuntos ladrones a bordo de motocicletas intentaron asaltarlo mientras circulaba por calles de la colonia Apatlaco, alcaldía #Iztapalapa. #DiarioDeMéxico https://t.co/2ibiIGG3Pb
— Diario de México (@DDMexico) November 30, 2022
Another modus operandi identified by Osprey consists of luring individuals to a country under false pretences, picking them up from the airport and then illegally detaining them, demanding a ransom for their release. Osprey reported two such cases: one in India in mid July, when two travellers were lured to New Delhi to sign a business deal, and another in mid April, when a French national was lured to Colombia believing he would meet a romantic partner whom he had met online. While neither of these incidents targeted aviation workers or crew, they highlight the need for crew to maintain a low profile while abroad, keep their plans private and refrain from engaging with unknown individuals, especially those encountered online.
3 police teams free Tamil Nadu businessman kidnapped from Delhi airport https://t.co/XFAKvhFDJG
— Stay in Gurgaon (@stayingurgaon) July 10, 2022
Violent acts such as shootings and stabbings at or near airports are not uncommon in the US. Such activity has the potential to negatively impact transiting passengers, personnel and/or flight crews. For instance, on the evening of 19 November, a Southwest Airlines ground operations worker was reportedly killed in the employee section of the long-term parking area at El Paso International Airport (KELP/ELP).
Incidents involving armed assailants, active shooters or suspected active shooters frequently lead to widespread panic among passengers and staff, which itself can pose significant safety and security issues and disrupt airport operations. For example, on 25 July, Osprey issued an alert after the Dallas Police Department confirmed that a woman entered the landside departure area of Dallas Love Field Airport (KDAL/DAL) and fired several shots from a handgun into the ceiling. No one was injured during the shooting. However, passengers from the terminal had to be evacuated and then rescreened at security checkpoints. In addition, flights were suspended for a period of hours. During times of panic, security personnel may be severely limited in their ability to act efficiently and effectively. For this reason, large-scale panic could be deliberately incited as a distraction by those wishing to conduct attacks against aviation.
Breaking: Flights at Dallas Love Field airport are grounded due to shooting https://t.co/c71LSSKj7D
— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) July 25, 2022
Occasionally, violent incidents have resulted from arguments between airport workers at their workplace, and violent crimes have been perpetrated by disgruntled former employees. For example, in January, Osprey issued an alert regarding an incident in which two men were injured in a shooting in a cargo area owned by the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department outside Miami International Airport (KMIA/MIA) on the night of 13 January. Both individuals and the gunman were male employees of Cargo Force, a freight-forwarding company that handles airline cargo at a property near the airport where the shooting occurred. The incident was reportedly the result of an argument, which had started earlier in the week and escalated.
— CBS4 Miami (@CBSMiami) January 14, 2022
Assaults, including sexual assaults, have also targeted airport staff and travellers, particularly at airport parking lots. For example, in May 2022, Osprey highlighted two separate attempted sexual assaults targeting two women, including an employee of Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport (KDTW/DTW), at the airport's 'Big Blue Deck' car park.
Latin American and the Caribbean
Crime in LAC is endemic, and documented activity reported at main international and regional airports has emphasised that travellers and aircrew are particularly vulnerable. Follow-home robberies frequently occur in Colombia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic, affecting both foreign and local nationals, including aviation personnel. Occasionally, some of these crimes have escalated, leading to the death of the victim, including foreign pilots. In March, Osprey issued an alert regarding an incident in which a US airline pilot and union official was shot during a robbery while en route from Bogota's El Dorado International Airport (SKBO/BOG) in Colombia to his hotel, located c.16km (10 miles) from the airport. The pilot was injured in the abdomen. At the time of the incident, the victim was in Bogota on union-related business.
2 pilots were shot in 2 different incidents this past week in Colombia-- one in Bogota one in Cali near their hotels, both apparently resisting robberies. One United and the other I think Delta (not sure on that.)
— ?? JonNYC ?? (@xJonNYC) March 26, 2022
Armed robberies at or near airports also pose another type of threat to aviation operators, for example in Cartagena, Colombia, and in Brazil, where airport staff have been directly targeted outside airports. Between January and August 2022, Colombian media reported at least six armed robberies in Cartagena's historic centre, in areas within 5km south/southwest of the city's Rafael Nunez International Airport (SKCG/CTG). In April, Osprey issued an alert highlighting security and safety concerns expressed by several workers based at Viracopos International Airport (SBKP/VCP), serving Campinas. The workers, who travel by motorcycle to and from their place of work, had complained that they were often the victims of crimes, including the theft of motorcycles, with one case reported to have been fatal. The criminal activity increased to the point that the workers created an online petition requesting better airport security and additional patrols by the Military Police.
Petty thefts are also common at and near airports, including on roads leading to/from facilities, particularly in Brazil, Cuba and the Dominican Republic. For example, in July, Osprey issued an alert highlighting various reports of luggage theft and violent assault against travellers at or near Havana's Jose Marti International Airport (MUHA/HAV) and Santiago de Cuba's Antonio Maceo Airport (MUCU/SCU). One passenger was reported to have claimed that criminals stole all her luggage while driving from Havana Airport to her residence, warning other travellers that criminals identify and carefully monitor potential victims as they depart the airport and then follow them.
In Mexico and Colombia, it is not uncommon for airport taxi drivers – both registered and unlicensed drivers – to steal from passengers. Additionally, aircrew have occasionally been assaulted or caught in shootouts in the Americas region in recent years, including in Venezuela, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico. Bystanders are at risk of being caught in crossfire of targeted shootings between rival gangs or private confrontations that occasionally occur outside airports, including in parking areas, or in the vicinity of airports.
Incidents of violent criminal activity against aviation personnel can prompt airport authorities or airlines to enhance security measures to ensure the safety and security of personnel. For example, relevant stakeholders may increase vehicle inspections at checkpoints near the airport – as occurred in Brazil at Viracopos Airport – or provide armoured vehicles to transport employees between their place of residence and work. This was reportedly a measure considered in Haiti following the attempted kidnapping of civil aviation personnel, including three air traffic controllers (ATC), on 29 October by armed criminals as they were travelling by car to Toussaint Louverture International Airport (MTPP/PAP), serving Port-au-Prince. At least one of the ATC employees was injured after receiving a gunshot wound to the leg. Operators may also reduce their crew exposure to criminality by selecting crew layover accommodation that is in close proximity to the airport and in areas with low criminality rates.
IFATCA is gravely concerned for the safety of civil aviation in Haitian airspace following an attack on aviation safety personnel, including three ATCOs. Read our full press release: https://t.co/RzGstxdJrN#haitiatc pic.twitter.com/7VTsrZeemH
— IFATCA (@ifatca) November 1, 2022
Significantly, violent criminal incidents have often escalated when the victims have resisted criminals' demands, resulting in serious injuries or even the death of aviation personnel. Crew should therefore be advised to cooperate with the perpetrators in such situations to avoid escalation.
Although the global COVID-19 pandemic reduced air travel and prompted movement restrictions, renewed tourism and international air traffic will create more opportunities for criminals to target travellers and aircrew. On 9 January, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said that air travel continued to recover through November 2022, with total air traffic rising by 41.3% in November year-on-year.
Additionally, worsening socioeconomic conditions, exacerbated by the pandemic fallout, could lead to an increase in criminality as several countries are struggling to recover economically, plunging more people into financial difficulties. According to a World Bank study released this month, forecasts indicate that the global economy will depreciate by 1.7% in 2023, with economic deterioration expected in all regions. Overall, the aftermath of the pandemic's impact on the economy may result in more individuals willing to commit robberies, thefts and kidnappings, among other crime, increasing the threat to aircrew. Similarly, airport staff may be more likely to be coerced into helping identify victims for financial payment. Osprey will continue to monitor levels of crime impacting aviation worldwide and provide up-to-date, detailed information and advice via our alerts.
Osprey has published case studies on criminality at US airports, criminality hotspots in Latin America and the Caribbean and opportunistic crime at Colombian airports.