The Case For Screening Airport Workers

“69 Are Accused of Lying to Get Airport Jobs” read the headline of the NY Times story on December 11, 2001, reporting the arrests of airport personnel who used false identification documents and made false statements on the their applications for airport identification passes which provided access to restricted areas of the airport.

“These are people who have misrepresented who they are,” said Paul M. Warner, United States Attorney for the District of Utah. “Through their use of false information and altered or counterfeit documents, they are able to obtain security badges that put them one card-swipe away from access to the most secure parts of the airport. We cannot have individuals, who have been untruthful in obtaining security clearances, working at our airport.”

Two hundred other employees will be facing INS administrative actions for being in the country illegally, but have managed to obtain airport public access badges. The specific charges bought by the government range from filing a false statement and possession of false social security cards to fraud and misuse of visas. Several had lied on their applications by failing to list criminal convictions that would have barred their employment. Sixty-one of the individuals had access to planes, runways, ramps leading to planes, and cargo areas. Three of the individuals were airport screeners.

The Airport and Transportation Security Act signed in November by President Bush was intended to encourage Americans to return to flying by assuring the public that the many flaws in domestic airport security have been, or will soon be, corrected. The new law is far-reaching in scope to be sure; the bill addresses the serious problems we now have with airport screening, checked baggage, and cargo inspection for bombs, and the need to employ new technologies for everything from identification of criminals and terrorists to landing aircraft from the ground. And while the act has serious problems with where, when, how, and by whom many of its provisions are to be implemented, it does at least address and identify almost all of the key areas in which security needs to be upgraded.

The glaring hole in the new law is its failure to address what has been airport security’s major challenge for decades: control of airport workers. The indictments and arrests in the Salt Lake City Airport just before the Olympics highlights once again why attention needs to be paid to the airside of the airport. Hundreds of thousands of airport workers are just a card-swipe away from aircraft, baggage, and cargo which remain vulnerable.

In 1986, when I first began an in-depth look at airport security for a major American international carrier investigating theft, fraud, narcotics dealing and myriad other crimes and abuses, I was staggered by the extent of the problem at our airports. Substance abuse, both drugs and alcohol, was widespread among ramp workers and ticket counter personnel. Supervisors who did not participate in violations of law or company policies themselves often tolerated those who did. Theft of baggage, from baggage, of cargo, of equipment, of duty free items, of liquor, and even such of items as automobile engines, life preservers, and filet mignons was not unusual. Employees who came to work late, left early, didn’t arrive at all, or were traveling using company benefits while being paid, were often not penalized because time cards were punched by co-workers or automatically punched by pre-set computers. In one instance, an absent worker was not only paid, but paid overtime while using employee benefits on an unauthorized vacation. And although much of this abuse was documented on video, in recorded interviews, and in signed statements, arrest or dismissal was rarely relied the result. Over the years, little has changed.

The fact that this criminal culture has flourished in our airports has been the subject of scores of investigative reports by the media, resulting in several high-profile criminal cases involving arrests of airport workers at major airports around the country for crimes far more serious than those reported in Salt Lake City. Yet despite the record of crime and even violence that is known to exist, the new Airport Security Bill has ignored the obvious vulnerability to infiltration by terrorist groups. The arrests of illegal immigrant airport workers disclosed recently has demonstrated how easy it is for anyone to penetrate our airports through fraud and deceit, and gain access to the areas most in need of protection.

That being the case, and in light of the past history of criminality on the airside of our airports, it is unconscionable that airport workers are not subject to at least the same level of screening that passengers and flight crews are. The Airport Security law has no effective safeguards from acts of sabotage or terrorism conducted by workers. Nothing is said in the law of how workers are to be screened, if at all. The arrests in Salt Lake City demonstrate the ease with which over 200 workers at one airport can gain access to restricted areas by virtue of their employment. In the words of the U.S. Attorney for Utah, they were just “one card swipe” away.

Earlier this week, the Delta Airlines terminal at Kennedy Airport was evacuated after a passenger waiting at a gate discovered a knife behind a seat cushion. Current FAA rules require any reported security breach in a terminal to result in an evacuation of the terminal and the re-screening of all passengers. It was not determined how the knife got there. A passenger? A worker? The tooth fairy? Something left over from days prior to September 11th?

We will evacuate an entire terminal at a major airport for a questionable security breach, but we continue to operate every day with the same level of security that was in place three months ago. The knife was already in; if its presence was the result of a faulty screening process or negligent workers, will a second screening by those same workers magically correct those deficiencies? Perhaps screening the employees with access to the terminals might be a more productive exercise.


  1. No worker who has not successfully completed a criminal and employment background check be allowed unescorted access to sterile areas.
  2. Supervisors be assigned to all functions involving contact with baggage, cargo, aircraft maintenance and aircraft provisioning.
  3. Any worker who has not successfully completed a criminal and employment background check not be allowed to possess an airport identification card providing unescorted access to sterile areas.
  4. Every worker reporting to work at secure work station be subject to a physical screening of the person and all parcels in the worker’s possession by a qualified screener.
  5. Any worker caught in violation of any federal or airport security rule be subject to immediate suspension, and if found to have been in violation, to appropriate penalty including termination.
  6. All reports of criminal acts alleging the involvement of an airport worker to be referred to the airport’s Federal Security Manager and the airport’s law enforcement authority.
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