Closing A Gap In Airport Security

Feb. 11, 2015

The arrest of a Delta Air Lines baggage handler just before last Christmas charged with aiding a long-running gun smuggling operation based out of the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport that ended up selling weapons such as AK-47s on the streets of New York City underscores a glaring gap in airport security.

The vast majority of airport workers don’t go through any type of daily security screening on their way to their shifts as passengers must do on their way to their flights. As it currently stands, only passengers, pilots and flight attendants have to pass through airport metal detectors, while workers such as baggage handlers, airplane cleaners and aircraft mechanics do not.

If the workers pass cursory criminal-background and threat-assessment checks by the TSA and its designated partners, that’s enough to give them badges allowing unsupervised entry to sensitive parts of airport real estate and its parked aircraft.


Authorities say that on Dec. 10, a man carrying a backpack containing 16 firearms with ammunition flew aboard a Delta flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport from ATL.

The suspect was arrested in New York that day following a months-long investigation.

“What we have in this case is an egregious breach of security down in that airport” in Atlanta, the Brooklyn district attorney, Kenneth P. Thompson, said at a news conference following the arrest.

At the center of the case is a former Delta Air Lines worker ultimately charged with smuggling 153 firearms, including an AK-47 assault weapon, on 17 Delta flights between Atlanta and New York from May 8 to Dec. 10 last year.

After passing through the regular airport security checkpoints, the suspect received the guns from an accomplice, a now-fired Delta baggage handler who was able to carry firearms into the terminal, Thompson said.

For their part, ATL officials were quick to address the issue. Airport officials plan to immediately reprogram all employee security badges to further restrict access to only certain parts of the airport.

Eventually, airport officials say they want to screen all employees and cut down the number of employee access points from 70 to 10.

"I'm not subscribing that every airport should screen all of its employees,” Miguel Southwell, the airport’s general manager said as he testified on Capitol Hill to a subcommittee on transportation security last month. “We believe given the high-profile of Atlanta, it would be applicable."

In talking with airport security consultants, the problems with policing the vast underbellies of the nation’s airports boil down to the high cost of conducting such stringent daily security checks, whether the current practice of random checks on employees work just as well and, finally, the cold reality that 100 percent screening isn’t 100 percent effective at stopping wrong-doing even at the two U.S. airports that have done it for many years.


Airports big and small have hundreds of ways for large numbers of workers to get into secure areas.

A Wall Street Journal report said an estimated 950,000 employees of airlines, airports, vendors, concessionaries and regulators have access to secure areas through around 18,000 access points at about 450 U.S. airports where the TSA conducts passenger screening.

Most U.S. airport employers rely on a somewhat stitched together process of hiring personnel. If a check with the local police department doesn’t turn up any red flags, for example, maybe a check with the FBI and U.S. Customs and Border Protection might.

More random checks of employees is routine these days, too. According to the TSA, the agency performed 7,234 hours of random employee screening in Atlanta and 257,979 hours of nationally in 2015.

What’s more, employees themselves are more diligent and trained to report co-workers whose badges aren’t showing or are the wrong type for a particular location.

If there’s one bright spot to note about the recent gun-smuggling bust at ATL it is that the authorities were already on to the perpetrators months in advance of their arrest gathering evidence. In other words, airport security to spending valuable time on intelligence-gathering to stop crime months in advance rather than waiting to catch a criminal red-handed.

Airlines for America, is also on the record of promoting a “risk-based system,” which recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach may not be the best bet to catch a thief. The trade group squarely supports more random checks.

Only two major U.S airports screen all their employees, sadly both as the results of their own gun-smuggling episodes with drug-smuggling thrown in for good measure.

  • Miami International Airport began screening all its employees through checkpoints after a 1999 drug-smuggling plot in which 58 ramp and food workers were arrested.

Miami, with some 30,500 workers with access to cargo and ramp areas, has four checkpoints for screening, five vehicle access gates manned by airport workers, random background checks of employees and a mandatory security awareness class for all employees among a myriad of other security measures.

  • Orlando International Airport began its 100 percent screening process in 2007 after two Delta employees were arrested for smuggling firearms and marijuana on a flight to Puerto Rico.

The airport has around 12,600 employees badged for entry to secure areas. The airport checks them at all pedestrian and vehicular entry points.


Arguments against screening airport workers 100 percent of the time are largely based on costs. The TSAs own figures indicate it would cost the agency $14.9 billion to screen all airport and airline employees each day. That far outstrips the TSA current budget, which was $7.3 billion for 2015 covering 45,000 screeners patrolling 2,000 passenger-screening lanes.

According a CNN report, however, MCO and MIA said the costs for their programs were relatively modest. The contract at Orlando for an outside vendor costs about $3.5 million a year, a small part of the $406 million that Greater Orlando Aviation Authority spent in 2013. In Miami, the cost is $3.1 million a year for an outside security firm to do the job, again, a small part of the $955 million Miami-Dade County Aviation Department spent in 2013.

Even with all this attention, however, there’s still room for error.

Last year, MIA confiscated 209 employee ID badges for security violations.


If any of these security measures familiar to industry veterans, it because must of this has been done before.

The TSA identified workers with access to secure areas of airports as one of the greatest potential threats to aviation, according to a 2008 report.

According to a Government Accountability Office report, the TSA in that year tested enhanced screening of workers at several airports. The contractor for the test concluded that random screening appeared roughly as effective in identifying contraband as 100 percent worker screening, and would be cheaper: between $1.8 billion and $6.6 billion for the first year, compared with $5.7 billion to $14.9 billion for total employee screening.

ATL officials weren’t the only ones called to testify on Capitol Hill last month.

Mark Hatfield, the TSA’s acting deputy administrator, said the agency is now examining such breaches to determine what investments and policy changes may be necessary.

Hatfield cited the GOA report that random screening proved nearly as effective as 100 percent screening, but he added an updated study could benefit current discussions.

Rep. John Katko (R-NY), the new chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation Security questioned Hatfield on the logic of spending billions of dollars per year on passenger screening while not implementing similar security for employees.

"What good is all the screening at the front door if we are not paying attention enough at the back door? The answer is common sense," Katko said

In 2014, the TSA performed 7,234 hours of random employee screening in Atlanta and 257,979 hours of nationally, but at Tuesday's hearing, Hatfield said the Atlanta breaches show U.S. airports remain "open" and "porous" to threats.

"We can do better," he said. 

About the Author

Steve Smith | Editor