Practicing Situational Awareness: Personal Security on Layovers

By Capt. Darrin Dorn (Alaska), Vice Chair, ALPA Air Safety Organization Aviation Security Group

The life and schedule of airline pilots are unlike those of most individuals in other professions. Our career provides us the opportunity to travel to locations around the country and the globe. When transporting our passengers and cargo to their various destinations, we regularly stay overnight (or sometimes longer) in a hotel far from home in cities we’re not familiar with.

We all know that as airline pilots we must remain vigilant and that if we see something that looks suspicious or out of place at the airport or on our aircraft we need to report it. But just as important is remaining vigilant about our personal security, and at no time is that more crucial than while on a layover—especially when in a city or a hotel for the first time.

While it may be easy to drop your guard after a long day flying the line, an effective security culture requires using sound judgment and being alert. Let’s review a few tips to help increase your situational awareness and maintain your personal security while on a layover.

From the Airport to the Hotel

The first part of your layover starts when you exit the sterile or secure area of the airport. Even getting to your hotel can have security concerns, so remain alert.

When possible, stay together as a crew as you exit security. Know ahead of time where your pick-up location is before exiting the terminal. At the pick-up location, make certain you’re boarding the correct vehicle and that it’s operated by an authorized driver. A simple trick is to ask drivers who they’re supposed to pick up; don’t volunteer who you are or ask if they’re there for you.

Ensure that all zippers are closed on your luggage before loading it in the van. If possible, keep your crew bag and other valuables on your person. A crewmember should monitor the loading of the luggage and make sure the door is locked. Make certain all other doors are locked before departing.

Be prepared once you arrive at your location. Have any needed tip money in your pocket so that you don’t have to pull out your wallet or open your purse in public. Finally, don’t linger on the sidewalk; collect your bags and enter the hotel together as a crew.

Checking In

Once you’ve retrieved your bags from the vehicle, make sure nothing is missing and then keep them with you constantly. When possible, place your luggage in front of you during any wait time rather than to the side or behind you. Never leave your bags unattended for even a minute—aside from having them stolen, items could be placed inside without your knowledge.

Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Monitor the people around you and in the lobby. Keep in mind that any distractions may be designed to do just that—distract you.

Request a room on the second through sixth floors, if available. First-floor rooms are at a higher risk for crime, while rooms above the sixth floor may not be reachable by fire department ladders in the case of an emergency.

Don’t openly discuss your room assignments in the lobby with your crew; calling out “I’m in 315. Where are you?” informs everyone else in the lobby of your room number. Quietly coordinate with the others so you’re aware where they are if you need to locate them.

When everyone is checked in, walk together with your crew to the elevators and proceed to your rooms.

In Your Room

When you enter your hotel room, keep the door propped open momentarily while you ensure that the room is safe and no one else is inside. Once you’ve done that, hang the “Do Not Disturb” sign, then close and lock the door, using all provided locks, chains, and bolts. For extra security, consider purchasing a wedge that you can put at the bottom of the hotel door.

Check to make sure that all windows and balcony doors are closed and locked. Close the curtains; even on higher floors, others can still see inside your room if the curtains remain open.

After all windows and doors are properly secured, check to ensure that the hotel phone is operational just in case you may need to use it. Review the nearest fire escape route; an emergency isn’t the time to try to figure these things out. If possible, consider walking the route to confirm it’s actually an exit.

Finally, throw away the envelope holding your room card and secure the card in your wallet or purse. If you leave the hotel and something happens, having possession of that envelope with the room number written on it makes it very easy for someone else to get into your room.

Departing the Room

Always make sure someone—typically one of your fellow crewmembers—knows where you’re going and when to expect you back. Share phone numbers so you can contact each other if something happens. When possible, don’t leave the hotel alone; try to travel with at least one other crewmember.

Before heading out, ask the front desk clerk or the concierge about the level of safety around the hotel. While everyone’s personal comfort level may vary, they can inform you as to whether the surrounding area is generally safe.

Keep your requests for suggestions regarding restaurants, shopping, tourist attractions, etc., to those same individuals. Others may have ulterior motives for suggesting specific locations.

If you’re not familiar with the hotel, request a local map and have the concierge mark the location of the hotel. Ask for a business card as well; if you go out and become lost or if there’s a language barrier, you can simply hand the card to a cab driver to return to the hotel.

When in public, limit use of your phone, as it may distract you and make you unaware of your surroundings. If it’s necessary to use it, back up to a wall or structure and then put your phone away afterward.

Checking Out

When you’re ready to check out, go over your room to ensure you’re not leaving anything behind. Make certain to check the safe if you’ve used it.

Unless it’s a permanent key, keep your room key even after you’ve checked out so that you can enter the hotel in case of an emergency or if you forgot something in your room. If you neglected to throw away the envelope your key card came in, don’t drop off your card in that envelope in an open location. It’s easy for someone to quickly grab a key out of an open bowl and access your room. While you won’t be there, they may be able to add charges to your room after you’ve left.

As with your arrival, make sure all zippers are closed on your luggage and keep everything with you at all times when checking out. Follow the same recommendations for your ride to the airport as you did on arrival: make sure all luggage is loaded, keep your crew bag on your person, and ensure all doors are locked. Then oversee the unloading of your luggage at your destination and travel to the airport screening area as a crew.

Remain Vigilant

Your security while on layover can be enhanced by simply being aware of your surroundings and paying attention. Often a situation or emergency only occurs when you drop your guard or engage in actions or activities that you shouldn’t be undertaking.

Sometimes there may be nothing you can do when a bad actor decides to act. But if you’re constantly alert, stay smart, and maintain your situational awareness, you can decrease the likelihood of something happening that could have been avoided.

Learn Your Street Smarts

ALPA’s Air Safety Organization Aviation Security Group created the “Street Smarts” video series to educate airline pilots on how to remain as safe as possible at all times by being prepared and aware of their surroundings, especially while traveling. Get more information on hotel/layover security as well as many other important security topics.

This article was originally published in the May 2024 issue of Air Line Pilot.

Read the latest Air Line Pilot (PDF)