Soiled Hands

Unless a company’s managers all have clean hands, they cannot control pilferage, outright theft and any other type of bad behavior.

The soiled hands referred to in my headline are not the honest soil brought on by our honest toil. I was reminded of this by a recent New York Times article on theft and drug activity at JFK Airport, a location, unfortunately, that has known this before.

Disturbing things were going on at JFK. First was the pilfering of luggage. This is a problem, however, airlines have always struggled with. I was a maintenance manager at Newark back in the late-1970s, and my station manager announced at his daily briefing he was in the processing of discharging a significant number of baggage handlers due to theft. Long suspected, they were nailed by one of the earliest uses of spy cams planted in the bag makeup room.

The union’s highest official eventually got involved since so many handlers were to be fired. He was treated to a performance of the videos showing some of his members expertly sorting the better bags from the common run, opening locks with master keys, popping bags ajar and doing a quick hand insertion and removal of valuables and locking them up again.

Although by any standard it was an open-and-shut case, the union official spoke of entrapment. That ceased, however, upon further viewing of the tapes when he saw an ardent handler extract a frilly pair of ladies undies and lift them up for all to see. That part was beyond his limits, and he agreed to their being fired.

Well, temptation is always present in airfreight and no more so than when gold bullion is shipped. One day a couple of guys from my crew went to the arrival’s terminal to pick up an Avianca Super Connie to taxi it to the hangar for overnight maintenance.

They brought it over and were parked on the fence. While waiting for a ladder, one of them noticed a wooden crate under one of the seats in the crew and navigator’s compartment. Through the open slats, he could see a gold brick.

They speculated as to its worth. A jeep came screeching up outside and an Avianca agent asked if they had left some freight onboard. Temptation removed.

Again at Newark some decades later, the FBI put a ring of airfreight people under arrest at my airline. The airfreight building was miles away from the terminals providing an opportunity to drop off selected boxes along the way. These were, of course, gold shipments that are more common than you might think.

The only amusing thing about it was the shop steward for the rampies who, not understanding that it was the FBI, burst into the airfreight building demanding that his boys stop being harassed.

He quickly became disabused of this notion after being put up against the wall, legs spread and saw handcuffs ready to be applied. The FBI agent inquired if he intended to continue interfering with a police function. He decided he did not and was allowed to leave.


One important thing: When you are in management, you have to meet the same standards that you are to enforce. The first year I was working, I heard my company was attempting to fire a mechanic for stealing gasoline from the hangar’s automotive pump in five-gallon cans. He was caught red-handed, but, of course, still had to have a disciplinary hearing.

At the hearing the union rep mentioned that the base manager and several of his staff regularly gassed up their personal cars at the exact same pump. They thought the state would be very interested since the gas was intended for only airport vehicles and exempt from taxes. The company’s case was suddenly very limp. The mechanic escaped with just a day off.

Later, a mechanic was under the gun for stealing an automotive battery. Once again, the union rep reached into the files and pointed out that the same mechanic had just been engaged in repairing the hull of a speedboat owned by the airline’s president. It was on company time, used company materials and, basically, was as indefensible as stealing the battery.

A long time ago, my airline was flying military airlift charters to Europe. The closest company station would send mechanics down to the Air Force base to work the aircraft.

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