Airport Insecurity

March 19, 2015
If passengers go through tight security, why don’t ramp agents?

The recent arrest of a Delta Air Lines baggage handler at the Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport who together with an ex-baggage handler for the same airline smuggled guns aboard commercial flights not once, but 17 times over eight months underscored a glaring gap in airport security.

“When guns, drugs, and even explosives are as easy to carry on board a plane as a neck pillow, then we have to seriously – and immediately – overhaul our airport security practices," said N.Y. Sen. Chuck Schumer in January at a press conference announcing the indictments against Mark Henry and Eugene Harvey.

One of the men worked inside a so-called Secure Identification Display Areas (SIDA). Once inside, staff who range from baggage handlers to mechanics to cleaning crews are subject to either no security screening at all or to random spot checks at best. Only passengers, pilots and flight attendants are required by federal law to pass through airport metal detectors.

The security breach at ATL, however, certainly isn’t the only headline-grabber involving airport workers.

Last year, ​Abdirahmaan Muhumed a former aircraft cleaner for Delta Global Services  at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport went to Syria and died fighting for the Islamic State. And in December 2013, Terry Loewen, an avionics tech was arrested as he attempted to open a security gate with his pass and drive a vehicle he believed to be packed with explosives onto the tarmac. Loewen hoped to commit an "act of violent jihad against the United States" and spent months studying the airport's layout, photographing airport access points, researching flight schedules and assisting in the acquisition of car bomb components, according to U.S. Attorney Barry Grissom at Lowen’s arraignment.

The numbers of such employees are huge – ATL alone employs 63,000 airport workers. Only two major U.S. airports in Miami and Orlando have their workers go through metal detectors – measures started years ago after security breaches involving gun- and drug-smuggling.

That leaves plenty of people who, if they pass cursory criminal-background and threat-assessment checks by the TSA and its designated partners, can obtain badges allowing unsupervised entry to sensitive parts of airport real estate and parked aircraft.


“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 following the arrest of Henry and Harvey.

The duo face various charges for smuggling 153 firearms, some loaded and which included no less than an AK-47, on 17 Delta flights between Atlanta and New York from May to December last year.

Ramp agent Harvey worked at a baggage transfer room that is within an SIDA at ATL. Investigators said security records show Harvey used his employee access card to enter the secure area just before 7 a.m. the day of Henry's Dec. 10th flight to New York.

Investigators said security footage showed Henry carrying a backpack and walking toward a gate in the B concourse around the same time he began texting Harvey. Harvey later entered a men's restroom across from the gate where Henry was waiting, and security footage recorded Henry walk into the same restroom soon after. A minute later, Henry walked back out carrying the backpack where the guns were later found.

Henry later traveled to the A concourse and flight records show he departed from gate A1, He was later arrested in New York City after selling the guns to an undercover cop.

For their part, ATL officials were quick to address the issue. In the aftermath, airport officials planned to 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 in January. “We believe given the high-profile of Atlanta, it would be applicable."

Although Transportation Security Administration officials have the power to conduct random screenings at any time, it’s also easy to argue that doing these checks isn't rigorous enough. According to the TSA, the agency performed 257,979 hours' worth of random physical screenings of airport employees with SIDA badges nationally in 2014, including 7,234 hours at ATL – and yet a baggage handler still managed to smuggle guns onto airplanes multiple times over many months.

But just how effectively would 100 percent screening of airport employees be in addressing this security gap?

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. 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.

Security consultants we spoke to also mentioned that other measures could be added to random screening to achieve a the higher level of security.

ID verification, for example, could be improved by adding biometrics to the SIDA badges. While this is a feature at some airports, it is not currently a TSA mandate.

The current state of background checks also leaves much to be desired. To receive a SIDA badge, employees are run through an FBI criminal history check. For domestic airports, there is one list of disqualifying crimes, and for international airports, the list is longer and employees are also checked against other law enforcement databases, including terrorism watch lists.

However, such checks are limited only stretching back a decade. There also aren’t as a rule any ongoing record checks after the initial vetting. Nor would a current investigation pop up in a background check that by its nature only looks at a person's history.

Airlines For American is on record for the following recommendation to improve background checks:

  • Increase the “look back” period to up to 20 years.
  • Make it easier to check employees against the terrorist database.
  • Require local law enforcement to share information with federal agencies regarding current investigations.


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.

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, for example, MIA confiscated 209 employee ID badges for security violations.


If the rallying cry for 100 percent security sounds familiar to industry veterans, it’s because the lament has been trumpeted 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 conducted a 90-day test that compared 100 percent screening vs. enhanced screening at seven airports, including Boston, Denver and Kansas City chosen to represent difference locations and airport sizes:

  • One hundred percent employee screening at either the checkpoint or airport perimeter gates was conducted at Boston Logan International Airport; Jacksonville International Airport in Florida, and Craven Regional Airport in New Bern, N.C.
  • Meanwhile, Denver International Airport; Kansas City International; Southwest Oregon Regional Airport in North Bend, Ore.; and Eugene Airport in Oregon conducted “layered, enhanced” employee screening methods. These included increased random physical screening and the deployment of portable equipment to screen employees throughout the airport environment. In addition, the test at these airports also behavior detection training for law enforcement officials and airport operations/security personnel as well as employee security awareness training to help identify potential security risks.

The results were assessed by the Homeland Security Institute, which concluded that random checks were nearly as effective as 100 percent screening and posed fewer operational challenges.

Moreover, the price tag associated with 100 percent screening was deemed cost prohibitive. The GAO estimated that conducting 100 percent screening would cost from $5.7 billion to $14.9 billion for the first year alone. Meanwhile, enhanced random checks were estimated at $1.8 billion to $6.6 billion.

Considering the TSA’s entire 2014 budget was $7.4 billion, cost is a major consideration.

The reason for the high price tag goes well beyond the cost of hiring more TSA agents or private security agents.

Although passengers likely can use more than one TSA security checkpoint to get to the gates, generally speaking there’s only  “one way in” for passengers. On the other hand, airport workers come and go through many “back doors” in the course of this jobs. Workflows across the airport would have to be altered to allow for efficient checkpoints.

ATL officials weren’t the only ones called to testify on Capitol Hill in January.

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 aforementioned 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

Hatfield said the Atlanta breach shows U.S. airports remain "open" and "porous" to threats.

"We can do better," he said. 

About the Author

Steve Smith | Editor