Soiled Hands

Feb. 28, 2012
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 earlier uses of spy cams that had been planted in the bag makeup room.

By the time I returned to my office, it was all over the station and the chief shop steward for the maintenance side was waiting for me. He was calm enough since no maintenance people were involved, but there was a great deal of uproar in the rampies’ side of the house.

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. Of course, pilferage of passengers’ baggage is unforgiveable. It hurts everyone in the company.

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

Two of us brought it over and were parked on the fence. While waiting for a ladder I noticed a wooden crate under one of the seats in the crew and navigator's compartment. Through the open slats, we could see a gold brick.

We speculated as to its worth. A jeep came screeching up outside and an Avianca agent asked if they had left some freight on board. 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 about 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.

Three mechanics were caught having a few rounds of beer while on duty. Once again an open-and-shut case, but wait – what's this? Some high company officials had high quality wine and champagne shipped in on the planes, too, and neglected to inform customs. Oh my!

Meanwhile, their maintenance manager who had nothing to do with the illicit shipments had to endure the snickers from the union.

I stored all these incidents away in my head and took heed. When I became a manager, I was able to look people in the eye when they said I would do what they had done, too. I was able to reply that I did not, had not and would not. And no one could reach into a file and say, "Yes you did," either. Unless a company’s managers have clean hands, they cannot control pilferage and outright theft.

The New York Times article also talked about the really ugly sister – drugs. Here you’re not just getting into criminal activities, but dangerous activities. Flying below the border or out to the islands presents a golden opportunity to some very bad people. They have the cash and ultimately the muscle to induce some to help them, too.

When my airline started flying to South America, we quickly found out how difficult it was to keep our aircraft drug-free.

It culminated for me when I had 5 kilos of white powder contained in plastic bags dumped on my desk. I was director of aircraft overhaul, and we had just inducted an L1011 into a major check.

While opening the rear baggage panels for inspection, a sharp-eyed mechanic noticed a string hanging from the beams supporting the cabin floor above. He pulled it and down tumbled the first sack of suspicious white powder. He called his foreman who collected the bags and brought them to my desk.

Our security notified the feds and we were swarmed for a short time. There was some difficulty about our “disturbing the evidence,” but our good intentions were evident and it was dropped. Also found, stuffed between a seat and the sidewall were several thousands in poor-quality counterfeit money. Why the stuff had not been picked up, I do not know. Bad business all around.