Inside Miami International Airport's Security Forces During a Hijack Situation

PHOTO: "Nightline" was invited to film with the security forces at Miami International Airport, as officials pulled back the curtain on their security tactics in unprecedented ways.ABC News
"Nightline" was invited to film with the security forces at Miami International Airport, as officials pulled back the curtain on their security tactics in unprecedented ways.

Let's say you're on a flight into Miami and the guy next to you comes completely unhinged.

While you watch flight attendants struggle for control, what you'll never see -- what few ever see -- is an airport the size of a small city spring from defense to offense in a blink of an eye.

Bodies move as word spreads from the pilot to the tower, to Operations Control, where intense eyes flick past the 1,500 camera feeds to find that fortified corner of the runway known as "the penalty box," where aircraft can park safety without blocking taxiways.

While the plane's engines whine, Miami-Dade police and, since this is an international flight, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents with guns approach. There was a time when these two agencies were grudge-holding rivals, but at the Miami International Airport, they move as one unit, hoping their target does not see them coming.

The particular situation described above is part of an incident training exercise at Miami International Airport, and the passengers, including the irate one, are actors. But even though it is just practice, hearts pound in these tense moments, embarrassing mistakes can be made and the fact that MIA officials invited "Nightline" to film suggests that they are pulling back the curtain on their security tactics in unprecedented ways.

The Travel Channel's series, "Airport 24/7: Miami," is the first reality show given access to the sort of high and low drama that plays out at MIA every day as 100,000 personalities collide. Cameras are rolling when tempers flare between colleagues, when drugs are found hidden in auto parts and when arguments erupt with a passenger over carry-on peanut butter. They are rolling when bomb-sniffing dogs find a suspiciously large stack of cash, when a gun is found on a carry-on bag and when a knife is discovered in one man's shoe.

It's all part of the routine for a place that has a small museum of would-be carry-on weapons.

Lauren Stover is not only the director of security at MIA, she is also the head of the airport's public relations. While many in her position might disagree, she sees this kind of publicity as a security tool.

"We believe that this is going to show the public what we do for their safety," she says. "We are not going to gave away family secrets. ... The only thing we want the bad guys to know is that we're serious about security -- so take it somewhere else."

What they reveal is a relentless game of cat and mouse.

As "Nightline" films, Tyson, one of MIA's security dogs, is sent out to sniff a cargo plane that arrives from Costa Rica full of fish and cilantro. Smugglers know that customs agents will catch hell if they let a palate of Orange Roughy go bad in the Miami sun, but the agents know this.

They know how smugglers mark boxes with innocent-looking numbers and how a dock worker who sneaks contraband past the gates can make $5,000. They seized close to 21,000 pounds of drugs last year. But on this day, there is no such luck and it is possible that Tyson might have made a mistake.

"Like everything else, K-9's are just like humans," says Border Patrol agent Angel Marquez. "Some days are good, some days are bad."

Meanwhile, in MIA's international terminal, other patrol dogs are trying to head off a shipment of the kind of plants that could carry devastating crop disease into the United States, but they also find a full assortment of oddities, including human body parts and fetuses used in Haitian religious rituals.

There are even bird smugglers that Border Patrol agents say will tape live birds inside their pants legs or around their waists. But bird smugglers are small potatoes in a "category x" airport -- the designation given to prime terror targets.

"We know for a fact that we are still the prime target for terrorism in the United States," Stover says. "And for us, we know there are threats here. There are insider threats, there is the threat of people coming into the country ... there are people out there that are financing terrorism through Hezbollah, Hamas and other terrorist groups."

Stover believes giving an insider look at the airport's securities measures is acting as a deterrent. But even then, it seems that officials still might have a few tricks up their sleeve. Miami-Dade police officer Felix Hechavarria says that the training filmed "was nothing" compared to what their forces can do to handle criminals.

"Domestic, international terrorism [perpetrators] that want to come on and wreak havoc at MIA, we've got something for them," he says.

Here's hoping they never have to prove it.