Feds to Boost Florida Air Worker Checks After Finding Guns, Drugs on Plane

The American Broadcasting Company - ABC News

The Transportation Security Administration is expected to announce this week that it will begin enhanced screening of workers at a number of Florida airports after two men were charged with smuggling weapons onto a plane, ABC News has learned.

The pending announcement follows the arrest this week of two Comair baggage handlers for allegedly carrying a duffel bag laden with 14 guns and eight pounds of marijuana on a Delta Airlines flight from Orlando, Fla., to San Juan, P.R. According to court documents, the two employees used their employee uniforms and airport identification badges to pass by screeners and enter high-security areas.

The incident highlights a loophole that allows 800,000 airport food and support workers to get ID badges that allow them to bypass screening while American airport passengers undergo the most rigorous screening ever that, most recently, requires them to remove shoes and have liquids and gels over a few ounces confiscated.

That loophole would be closed under a bill offered in Congress by Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., on Thursday. The bill would require airports to screen all workers with access to secure areas to the same degree that passengers are screened.

"If we have to go through screening why don't they?" Lowey demanded. "This is a threat to our country. We're spending billions in security and leaving the back door open."

Lowey was irate in questioning Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff on the loophole in a Feb. 8 hearing on Capitol Hill. Chertoff said screening would slow up work to make airport business unworkable, but added that federal authorities were looking for a practical solution.

Zabdiel J. Santiago Balaguer, 22, of Kissimmee, Fla., was removed from the plane after police were tipped off to the alleged smuggling operation.
Police released him after finding no contraband with him.

They then arrested his alleged accomplice, Thomas Anthony Munoz, 22, of Kissimmee, after the plane touched down in San Juan, toting the guns and drugs in a bag, according to federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives officials.

The Transportation Security Act of 2001 requires TSA employees to screen all workers, but the act has not been fully implemented since then.

Balaguer made it onto the plane despite being under FBI surveillance for allegedly taking part in gun running at the Orlando airport, according to a report by The Orlando Sentinel.

FBI officials arrested Munoz after using surveillance cameras and card key records in secure areas to track Balaguer, according to the Sentinel.

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