When Surveillance Begins At The Airport


When the person we are about to follow flies into town our margin for error flies out the window. If we don’t know where they will be staying–which is most of the time– getting on them after they land is our only opportunity.

The stakes are high. A client has paid his or her retainer and expects results. If we don’t do the job right we will be refunding that deposit out of honesty and professional pride. I am proud to say we have never had to make such a refund in nearly 20 years of business. I am good at what I do and select the veteran licensed investigators to assist on each case. We do most of these surveillance starts at San Francisco International, the 12th busiest airport in the nation at more than 38 million passengers per year. We often work our trade on crowded Friday and Saturday nights.

When I started in this business about 20 years ago a boss gave me a book called The Secrets of Surveillance. I scanned the book but it may as well have been written in Sanskrit. At the time I was not doing much surveillance so I couldn’t relate to the language, diagrams, etc. As rocker Nick Lowe once said: Writing about rock-n-roll is like dancing about architecture. The same could be said for writing about how to do surveillance. It is ultimately a skill that can only be learned through experience and trial and error.

Perhaps more so than inĀ  other investigations, little and numerous details make for success at the airport. Remember, if we can’t find follow them to where they are staying the case likely has no future because it becomes a guessing game or finding a needle in a haystack. Post 9-11, the airport pick-up of a subject presents lots of challenges.

What we need:

  • Airline, flight number, arrival time, etc.
  • What are they wearing when they board? Take a photo of them right before if possible.
  • What is their most distinguishing characteristic? Glasses, jewelry, hat, purse color, etc
  • What does their luggage look like? I had a recent case where I could not tell the physical characteristics but identified them based on a unique luggage logo.
  • Will they check their bag(s) or just go carry-on?
  • Cab, rental car, friend picking them up, etc?

How we do our job:

  • Though we have been successful with one spotter and one driver you should use at least one spotter and two drivers.
  • One spotter should take the closest exit point to where passengers enter the general airport area. Another spotter should be near the luggage carousel or possibly covering another exit point from the gate area.
  • One driver should be far back but try to remain in the same terminal area. This driver at a crowded time will have to delay or might be moved forward by airport security.
  • Another driver should be a “rover” pretty much driving in a loop through all the terminal areas. If first driver gets pushed ahead or forward of the surveillance subject, Rover might be able to circle around and become the primary chase vehicle.
  • Spotters and drivers need to be ready for anything. If the subject gets into a cab, the spotter needs to be in phone contact with a driver to give the number of the Taxi and other identifying information on the Taxi and the subject. The spotter might need to get on a rental shuttle or follow the subject into a parking area or get a plate and description for a car picking them up.

Commit the financial and personnel resources to the airport pick-up at the beginning of the surveillance. You can always drop the number of personnel as the case warrants but if you lose a subject at an airport the case is severely jeopardized.