As a traveler, it’s certainly troubling to hear of a gun smuggling scheme in which a former airline employee allegedly carried bags of guns and ammunition on commercial flights between Atlanta and New York—not once, but 17 times, from May to December.
Roughly 153 weapons were recovered in the investigation, including AR-15 and AK-47 assault weapons, 9mm pistols, and a .380 caliber pistol, nearly all purchased in Atlanta, Georgia and bound for the streets of Brooklyn, according to Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson in a statement Tuesday afternoon. Four men were charged in two separate indictments for allegedly conspiring to sell the firearms.
“In this age of terrorism, it is simply unthinkable that anyone would breach the security of our nation’s airports to smuggle guns and ammunition, including assault weapons, on commercial airliners and jeopardize countless lives all to make money,” stated Thompson.
What may be more unthinkable, however, is how it happened—and how it could easily happen again.
The man who transported the weapons in his carry-on luggage was Mark Henry, a former Delta Airlines baggage handler.
Henry allegedly got the weapons from Eugene Harvey, a current Delta baggage handler, in a spy-novel bag drop inside the secure area of the airport. Harvey was paid a fee for his role.
Lax Security for Airport Employees
There are two worrying flaw in the system. The first is that airline employees do not have to go through a security check at the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia, according to Thompson. And it’s not just in Atlanta.
At most airports, employees who work inside secure areas, such as baggage handlers, restaurant employees, and cleaners, are subject to lax spot checks at best.
A pilot was so troubled by this situation at the San Francisco International Airport, that in 2010 he secretly filmed a behind-the-scenes look at the comings and goings of airport workers and posted it on YouTube. The video created enough of a storm that the footage was later removed, but the problem remains.
In October 2013, two ground services employees at Los Angeles International Airport, Dicarlo Bennett and his boss Miguel Angel Iniguez, were convicted on one felony count of possession of a destructive device after they set off two dry-ice bombs inside secure areas of the airport—an employee restroom and on the tarmac. There was no real harm done, just a few flight delays, but it revealed how these men, and tens of thousands more employees at LAX, have access to most parts of the airport.
Given this scenario, it’s actually relatively simple for a baggage handler like Harvey to bring guns into the airport and pass them to a passenger who is cleared for boarding.
No Stringent Screening for Jobs
The second worrying flaw in the system is the lack of scrutiny in the hiring process for airport employees.
To qualify for a security badge that gives access to sensitive areas at an airport, you might assume there’d be extensive background checks, particularly in our post-9/11 world.
Not so. Vetting a prospective employee is up to the airline, and it typically consists of the usual vetting of employment references and a criminal record check. That’s it.
A lot of people are under the erroneous impression that airport workers need higher level security clearance. But this isn’t the case, says attorney Sean M. Bigley, one of the nation’s few specialists in federal security clearance defense.
The only people who have security clearance are people with access to classified government information, like people working for the federal government, FBI, or military.
The process of security clearance for airport employees is “a shockingly cursory ordeal,” says Bigley.
“I think it’s a real gap in airline security,” he added.
The solutions to both flaws are rather daunting, which may explain why they haven’t happened yet.
In the first case, to solve the problem of daily screening, tens of thousands of employees would have to go through passenger-level security checks every time they come to work.
This would require an enormous infrastructure. Just to deal with passengers, the TSA currently employees 47,000 security officers at 450 airports. Think about the lengthy, cumbersome process of stripping down and going through body scans when you board a flight. Now imagine trying to do the efficiently for all airport staff every day. JFK airport in New York has 37,000 employees, for example.
Then of course there’s the dangerous equipment employees have access to anyway once they arrive at work, including knives, chemicals, and any number of items that could become concealable weapons.
As for the second flaw, better employee screening, that too is a tremendous task. According to Bigley, the process for conducting serious security clearance investigations on some 2 million federal employees each year also has deep flaws because the system is over-taxed.
“The actual process of doing the background investigations is really a box-checking exercise,” he says, due to the sheer volume of work an investigator has to get through.
The only other solution would be an extra round of security at the gate. But that couldn’t plug every security hole either since employees don’t need passengers if they want to get something on a plane. They already have access to the itself and everything loaded into it, not to mention the tarmac, terminal building, and so on.
Of course the bigger deterrent would be the passenger revolt the airlines and TSA would have to face. Just imagine that for a moment and you’ll probably join the TSA in hoping that this was an isolated case that will soon die down and be forgotten.