THE MAGAZINE

Airports and the Inside Job

By Joseph Straw

The number of workers who enjoy access to secure or “sterile” areas of the world’s major airports—everyone from couriers to caterers to airplane cleaning staff—is staggering. The total figure in the United States is estimated at close to 1 million; roughly 30,000 such workers are credentialed at Miami International Airport alone.

One of four men arrested this summer in an alleged plot to blow up fuel lines servicing New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport once worked there as a baggage handler. That case highlights the weakness of standard employee vetting methods like criminal background checks; none of the four suspects had prior criminal records. 

In light of the threat that workers pose to airports, there is growing support for requiring all airport workers to go through a physical screening station each time they enter a secure area.

The absence of “universal” physical screening recently received national attention when a Phoenix television station videotaped service workers entering a terminal at the city’s Sky Harbor International Airport; they were asked only to present approved ID. However alarming the practice may be, it does not violate any U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) policy.

Proponents say full screening would help fight not only terrorism but also drug smuggling and other common crimes. A case in point: Acting on a tip late last year, the TSA charged a Comair baggage handler working at Orlando International Airport with smuggling a bag containing 14 guns and 8 pounds of marijuana onto a plane bound for San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The practice of screening workers is already mandatory at many major airports around the world, such as Hong Kong International, Amsterdam, and London’s Heathrow International. It is also voluntarily imposed at some U.S. airports, including in Miami. Miami’s program dates to 1999, when it was implemented in response to concerns about the region’s trade in weapons and illegal drugs.

Following the Phoenix news report, the TSA implemented 100 percent physical screening of service workers at Sky Harbor airport, but only at Sky Harbor, says TSA spokeswoman Amy Kudwa.

Airport operators oppose universal physical screening of workers, arguing that it would create gridlock. Instead the industry, through a consortium of nine top airport and airline trade groups, is working with the TSA to test a range of risk-based worker-screening methods.

These proposals include increased worker vetting, enhanced access controls through the use of CCTV and detection equipment, better employee training and, most notably, behavior recognition by trained airport staff and targeted, unpredictable physical inspections. 

Charles Chambers, senior vice president of security and economic affairs with the Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA)—the lead member of the consortium—says that if there were 100 percent screening, terrorists would find other ways to transport weapons or explosives into secure areas.

But airline security consultant Douglas R. Laird, Sr., CPP, former head of security for Northwest Airlines, maintains that universal physical screening is not only effective but also necessary. The private sector’s resistance is based solely on cost, he says.

“I believe that carriers and airports just don’t want to spend any more money to do something that would plug a wide hole in security,” Laird says.  He also doubts the efficacy of brief employee training in behavior recognition.

Behavior recognition, pioneered by the Israelis, is “totally unproven” in the case of expert practitioners, Laird says. U.S. airport employees by comparison would probably only receive a couple of hours of training in the method, he says.

Laird further notes that criminal background checks are essentially useless in preventing a sophisticated terrorist attack, because sophisticated groups like al Qaeda can, and would, select attackers with clean records.

Chambers says that expanded and more sophisticated vetting holds promise in preventing criminal activity if not terrorism. Felony checks could be expended beyond the standard ten years to 20; while reviews of workers’ financial history could uncover money problems, like those which allegedly led the Comair worker to smuggle guns and drugs.

 

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