Nine American Airlines employees have been arrested for allegedly smuggling more than 300 suitcases packed with cocaine by loading them onto planes from Puerto Rico to Miami and New York, according to a Drug Enforcment Administration report obtained by NBCDFW.com.
The scam was simple: an employee of another company would drive the suitcases through an employee entrance and onto the tarmac at Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in Puerto Rico. The airline employees would then place the coke-filled suitcases into the cargo holds of flights to Miami and New York. The operation lasted ten years before federal authorities broke it up.
The incident highlights vulnerabilities in aviation security, particularly when dealing with regular employees, the station says.
Eight years after Sept. 11, 2001, airport workers are still not screened the same as passengers. At most airports, they enter through separate doors, where they are rarely checked with metal detectors or X-ray machines. Some workers can even drive trucks onto the tarmac through checkpoints often staffed by private security companies, not the government.
"This is not just drugs that are coming into our country, this is a big hole in our homeland security," A.J. Irwin, a former Joint Terrorism Task Force manager, told the station. The logic is simple: the bags could have been loaded with something a lot worse than cocaine.
The Transportation Security Administration says that screening all airline employees regularly as they walk in and out of employee entrances would cause commerce to grind to a halt. TSA spokeswoman Andrea McCauley told the station that airport employees are checked against the terrorism watchlist and that the agency throws up random screenings at employee entrances. At larger airports, however, employees can usually find another entrance where screening isn't occuring.
The drug-smuggling incident confirms a big concern for counterterrorism and security experts: Airline employees could be bribed or otherwise compromised to place baggage onboard a plane without any knowledge of what's inside.
Private security also dropped the ball it seems as well. According to the station, private security guards at the gate never checked the suitcases before they were brought onto the tarmac.
♦ Photo of worker loading baggage by nicvder1/Flickr