An Inside Examination of Airport Security

In the first week of December, 2004, the media focused on the problem of missing security personnel uniforms and badges reported in Canada. Just how our friends to the north learned of the loss of over 1100 uniforms and badges is not clear, but it was reported that at least one uniform was offered for sale on E-bay — hopefully, that was not how the problem came to the attention of Canadian authorities.

About the same time, France reported the loss of plastic explosives which had been placed in passenger luggage as part of a test of their screening system. The bag not only got past their screeners, it was also able to elude the testers, who have been searching Air France flights in various countries (including the U.S.) ever since. In both instances, aviation security was apparently breached from the inside. This reminded me of the situation in 1986, when I was asked to look into security issues for Trans World Airlines by its chairman and owner.

In 1986, TWA was faced with a flight attendant strike, which was becoming violent as the company hurried to replace its striking employees with new hires, qualified management personnel, and “cross-overs” (flight attendants who crossed the picket lines and reported for work). My first assignment as a newly minted attorney and a long-time security practitioner was to ensure the safety and security of in-flight personnel, and to secure company property from the vandalism which had begun in various airports.

To assist me in my assignment, I hired off-duty and retired law enforcement personnel in New York City, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. Their job was to investigate reports of violence, protect working flight attendants and their families, and secure company property that was being vandalized from the ramp side of the airports. The perpetrators of the violence were not the striking flight attendants, but other TWA employees, predominantly from the air side of the airport, who supported the striking flight attendants by openly menacing working flight attendants, and reputedly sponsoring and participating in acts of violence, including assault and fire bombings. There was even an attempted shooting of a flight attendant through the window of her hotel room while on a layover in Denver.

Rampant Crime At Airports
During the several months of the strike, we learned from honest, hardworking ramp service personnel the extent of the crime and violence that they had been living with for years, and which had become part of the culture at JFK and Los Angeles International airports. To help us understand and correct the widespread violations of company policy, FAA regulations, and federal and state criminal statutes, we placed undercover personnel on the ramps of several airports.

We also secured the willing assistance of an airline worker who himself had twice been dismissed for theft and violence, and had both times been returned to work, with back pay, by arbitrators. Offering to cooperate in return for being given a third chance as a ramp-serviceman, over the next 18 months he led us to theft rings, narcotics trafficking, fraud, gambling, and service thefts. We purchased back stolen TWA and shipper property, uncovered “stash lockers” in break rooms that were unknown to management, videotaped time-clock fraud, and uncovered thefts from duty-free storage facilities. We also learned how accessible aircraft, baggage, cargo, catering, and maintenance areas were — and are — to thousands of aviation industry workers, vendors, airport personnel, law enforcement officers, contactors, and off-airport criminals who have unfettered access to aviation facilities without going through screening.

Prior to 9/11, airline passengers were warned not to pack expensive items, money, or personal valuables in checked baggage, and were encouraged to lock all checked bags and, in some cases, even secure them with tape or other binding material to make them impregnable to industry workers (whose reputation for theft of passenger property from checked baggage was well earned). At the beginning of each summer travel period, network television regaled the public with video footage of battered baggage that had been forced open, pilfered, and then placed on baggage return carousels with the contents hanging out. Each year, approximately 2 million pieces of baggage were delayed, misdirected, or lost in commercial aviation. The volume of misdirected, unidentifiable baggage was so great that air carriers annually auctioned or sold off recovered bags to companies that resold the contents from warehouses and eventually via the Internet.

Industry workers knew of the brisk commerce in stolen bags and property, some of which were taken right from the airports in which they were checked. Other bags were deliberately re-ticketed for airports at which other workers and their confederates claimed them with baggage checks that had been carried to the new destinations on the same flights as the bags themselves. This process of stealing passenger, shipper, and carrier property was known at JFK as “shopping.” Workers would “shop” for bargains and take them home in bulging bags that that had been empty when they arrived for work at the beginning of their shifts. A choice assignment for ramp personnel was always the cargo hangar, where shipments containing expensive European clothing imports, electronics, fragrances, and even jewelry and foreign currency were available for the picking. It was reported that, in some instances, shippers packed smaller containers with “gifts” for workers in return for leaving the main shipments intact upon arrival. Workers were known to take orders for merchandise from other workers who paid “strictly wholesale” prices for items to round out their Christmas lists.

During our time on TWA’s ramps, we learned about and videotaped for management the under-belly of two of the nation’s busiest airports: New York’s JFK and Los Angeles International. We conducted sting operations that identified thieves, drug dealers, petty criminals, and others who worked for TWA, other carriers, the airport authority, parking lot operators, and other entities who — by their silence, acquiescence, or patronage — furthered the culture of deceit, criminality, and fear that pervaded airport operations on a daily basis. As is the case in most workplace settings where illicit activity is present, we found that 10 percent of the workers were always alert for opportunities to break a rule or a law for personal gain; 10 percent refused to participate in any phase of those activities even when threatened, and the rest went along to get along.

Management personnel were not immune from temptations either. Some offered favors to employees in return for favors from their subordinates, sometimes flying off together on company passes to company destinations on company time. Others looked the other way when half the shift clocked out for the other half so that nobody had to regularly work a full tour. Some knew of claimed overtime pay collected by employees who not only hadn’t put in overtime hours, but hadn’t come in at all (or were off on a trip using company benefits to fly at reduced rates or for free). And some managers, in the face of the ready availability of illegal drugs or free alcohol, would partake long before the end of their work day. Other management personnel quit their jobs, went back to line positions, or risked their safety and quite possibly their lives because they would not accept what was going on around them.

Are We Ready For the Right Answer?
As a result, when Pan Am 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbee, Scotland, on December 21, 1989, my thoughts were of how easy it must have been to place an explosive aboard that 747 from the ramp side of the airport. Two years later, I had my chance to make that argument to the presidential panel investigating the bombing. On July 17, 1996, when the news of TWA 800 reached me at home in Portland, Oregon, my first thoughts were again of Kennedy Airport, from which the flight had departed shortly before exploding over the Atlantic. Once again, I argued for tightening the screen around our airliners from the ramp side of the airport to the same New York senator who told me in 1989 that we as a nation were not ready to do that yet.

On September 11, 2001, as I watched the smoke linger over Manhattan, I once again began a crusade to secure the ramp side of our airports. I believe the idea that weapons for 19 hijackers all got through on four flights at three different airports on the same morning simply defies the odds, no matter how poorly trained the screeners were. I recently spent the day with a senior mechanic for an international carrier at a domestic U.S. airport; he assured me, as have others, that the culture has not changed.

It is simply reckless security practice to allow some 900,000 workers at America’s commercial airports to come into the workplace without going through the same physical screening process that passengers and flight crews go through. I have heard all of the arguments about “trusted worker” programs, background checks, inconvenience, and slowing down the process, and I remain unconvinced that we cannot procedurally secure aircraft, baggage, and cargo from exposure to the risk of ramp-side terrorism. I know what every airport worker in America knows: Our airliners are more vulnerable to explosives from the air side than the passenger side, and until we correct that, aviation security remains a crap shoot.

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