The Transportation Security Administration began intense random inspections of airport workers in Florida and Puerto Rico on Monday after the arrest of two Orlando-based airline employees who allegedly carried 14 guns onto an airplane.
Last week's arrests heightened calls in Congress for the TSA to screen the 900,000 airport workers who can get onto airplanes and into secure airport areas without going through metal detectors.
"It is irrational to meticulously screen passengers but give workers open access to secure areas of airports," said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.
The TSA sent a total of 160 screeners to Miami, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and San Juan airports where they will spend the week searching employees, checking their ID badges and searching airplanes before passenger boarding, said Earl Morris, the TSA general manager for field operations.
"We want to make sure those who are coming through access points are legitimate airport employees and are not carrying anything that could do any harm," Morris said.
Airport passengers also may face random screening at gates, Morris said.
The TSA has sent extra screeners to other targeted airports since 2005 and chose the Florida and Puerto Rico airports after federal agents arrested two Comair agents based at Orlando International Airport.
On March 5, Thomas Anthony Munoz, 22, was charged in San Juan's Luis Muooz Marin International Airport with sneaking weapons and drugs onto an Orlando-to-Puerto Rico flight. Munoz allegedly used his airline ID to board the flight carrying a duffel bag with 13 handguns, an assault rifle and 8 pounds of marijuana.
Zabdiel Santiago Balaguer, 22, was arrested March 6 and charged with helping Munoz. Comair fired both.
The Orlando airport immediately assigned more police to patrol employee-access doors, airport spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said.
At Miami International Airport, the extra police and TSA screeners will signal to passengers and workers that authorities will "face head-on any insider threat," airport security director Lauren Stover said.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said the added security is "welcome but far from applause-worthy" because the TSA hasn't required screening of airport workers.
Lowey introduced a bill Thursday that would require the TSA to screen all employees at five airports during a six-month test. Lowey first proposed employee screening in 2004 after workers at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport were charged with smuggling drugs into the airport.
Reports of last week's arrests "sounded like somebody testifying for my bill," Lowey said.
The TSA recently required more airport workers to pass background checks. Last year, it began random searches of airport workers. The searches in Florida and Puerto Rico are "much more intense," Morris said.