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Airports Moving Ahead On Secure-Area Employee Screening

Blog Post
4 Minute Read

Bill McAteer
CPP, ACE, Account Executive
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Publish date

Oct 10, 2018

On July 19, Eugene Harvey, a former baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, was sentenced to 30 months in prison. His crime: smuggling 135 guns into an employee-only part of the airport, and then having a conspirator sneak them onto commercial flights in his carry-on bags.

He was caught nearly four years ago, but the incident continues to reverberate in aviation security circles. Though there have been other smuggling schemes by airport workers before and since, this one seemed to sound the wake-up call. Suddenly, U.S. Senators were calling for stricter federal regulations on airport worker screening. And, many aviation security veterans, including myself, were suddenly more alert to the potential for carnage by disgruntled or radicalized employees determined to smuggle in weapons for attacks either on flights or in the airport itself. Those concerns have translated into action. Several airports are planning on making major upgrades to fortify their “plane-side” perimeters. Just to be clear, I’m not talking about investment in more cyber-tools to analyze workers’ online history for clues. I’m talking about physical screening of real-world humans, to search for real-world weapons.

Making employees and contractors queue up like passengers just to get to work was unthinkable not long ago. Even when TSA was created after 9/11, it issued no mandates for employee screening. In the aftermath of Atlanta incident, several airports initiated physical screening of employees, searching for weapons as they entered their work areas (the secure/sterile areas of the airport). More recently, airports began using the FBI RapBack program, which will send real-time alerts to airports whenever an aviation worker is arrested, has a conviction of a crime or shows up on a terror list.

But the industry is moving at least as fast as Washington, and probably faster. Market leaders are pushing beyond mandates, and deploying, testing or just looking hard at solutions like ours. At the Global Security Exchange (GSX) conference in Vegas last month, I was impressed by the number of attendees that hung around for the last session of the day, to hear me and my  fellow panel-mates talk about “Aviation Lessons on Combating Insider Threat.”

I shouldn’t have been so surprised, airports are under the gun as never before to provide additional layers of security to include employee screening . Airports are sensitive and do not want to risk delays because employees were stuck at security checkpoints. And adding physical screening at major airports is a problem of massive scale. Half—yes, half— of visitors to U.S. airports each day are employees or contractors, according to former TSA director John Pistole and Evolv Technology advisor. More than 40,000 people work in secure areas at Hartsfield, alone.

From my travels, I see airports experimenting with a wide range of physical screening technologies and strategies. But some best practices are becoming apparent. Here a few:

  • – Airports understand there is no one size fits all application for screening every worker. That would be inefficient and ineffective in both monetary and cultural terms. Asking employees to essentially extend their commute by standing in security queues to get to work isn’t advisable in our low unemployment economy. It’s far better to treat different types of employees according to their risk profile. New contractors with major holes in their work history and access to heavy equipment should be screened more often and more rigorously than long-time employees with office jobs. Time matters, too. A concessionaire that sells donuts and coffee to the morning shift every day should get closer scrutiny if they unexpectedly show up at a cocktail party for top executives.
  • Get random – While screening every employee would be safest, it’s not realistic or necessary. In fact, as much as we like selling Edge systems, we don’t recommend it. The important thing is that employees at least have the expectation that they may be screened at any time.
  • Training works – Nobody likes the thought of a potential terrorist or lone-wolf shooter in their midst. Research suggests that awareness training is effective. Every employee with a badge should receive training in areas relating to mass casualty events some areas to consider are behavioral recognition, a version of “run, hide, fight”, trauma first aid and other areas where they can help during an event.

Of course, nightmare scenarios will always be possible—and almost impossible to predict. I spent most of my career as a Commander with the Port of Seattle Police Department, and my heart went out to the security team at Seattle Tacoma International Airport when a deeply-troubled ground service worker hijacked a turboprop off the tarmac and took a joyride before crashing into an island in Puget Sound in August.

It may well be that there is no preventing such edge cases. But if there is any silver lining, it’s that this tragedy once again has the powers-that-be in Washington calling for federal regulation–and has industry executives looking for ways to keep their employees and facilities safe, while proving they can regulate themselves without onerous amounts of help.

Bill McAteer
CPP, ACE, Account Executive
See Bio