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Airports Scrutinize Employees

​Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport employs more than 63,000 people to keep operations at the world’s busiest transit hub running smoothly. Employees who need behind-the-scenes access, whether they are employed by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) or the airport itself, have to pass background screenings and are given badges that allow special access. But a Delta Airlines employee, Eugene Harvey, used his badge to smuggle guns from Atlanta to New York on at least 20 flights from May to December of last year, bringing scrutiny to employee security, access control, and the insider threat at airports across the nation.

Harvey reportedly used his security clearance to provide guns to his accomplice, who was a passenger, once he passed through airport security. The accomplice would put the guns and ammunition into his carry-on luggage. What prosecutors are calling an “egregious breach of security” has brought scrutiny from security professionals and lawmakers on the Atlanta airport and the employee screening process in general.

This isn’t an isolated incident. Earlier this year, a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspector bypassed security and flew from Atlanta to New York with a gun in his carry-on bag. And at the end of January, another Atlanta airline employee was arrested for using his security credentials to board a flight to Paris without going through passenger screening.

Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) badges are given to airport employees who work in a sterile area—anywhere past main security checkpoints. These workers include vendors, mechanics, ground crew, and baggage handlers. Employees must pass TSA-conducted background screenings that include criminal checks. However, experts are concerned that not enough is done to continually screen employees once they are issued special access.

“Preemployment and updated background investigations are the first line of defense to determine whether someone is qualified to be in a sensitive position,” says Dr. Daniel J. Benny, CPP, PCI, the program chair of aviation security at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

After the gun smuggling ring was busted, Rep. John Katko (R-NY) chaired a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Transportation Security to address airline employee security concerns. Mark Hatfield, acting deputy administrator of the TSA, explained that each airport is responsible for developing and executing its own security plans, while the TSA is responsible for approving the plans and inspecting for compliance.

The TSA required only that airport authorities conduct random physical searches of SIDA badge holders and check employees’ names against the terrorist screening database daily. This lack of a comprehensive federal policy has led to disparate employee screening practices from airport to airport. For example, only two airports, in Miami and Orlando, require all employees to pass through a metal detector on the way to work.

Even the required background screening measures may not pay off, according to witnesses at the Transportation Security Subcommittee hearing, because the terrorist database focuses on a narrow threat and does not take into account other criminal risks.

In April, a working group from the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) released an evaluation of TSA operations, which included 28 recommendations addressing security screening, vetting employees, and internal controls for airport credentials, such as SIDA badges.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced that the TSA will adopt five of those recommendations, including requiring a fingerprint-based criminal records check for all SIDA badge holders every two years, reducing the number of SIDA access points, and increasing random employee screenings. Johnson noted that the TSA will “continue analyzing the recommendations of the ASAC report, and identify additional mitigating measures for future implementation.”

Previously, most airports did not conduct subsequent criminal checks on employees once they were hired, unless they were up for a promotion. Benny says that some airports require employees to disclose any changes to their criminal records, but much like physical screening, it’s not federally mandated.

“There’s even a movement to eliminate people being asked if they have any criminal convictions, which is pretty disturbing, quite frankly,” Benny notes. “That would be devastating to the security profession in any industry, especially where you need people in sensitive positions.”

During the hearing, lawmakers asked witnesses to discuss ways to bolster access control, including more frequent background screenings and physical screenings of all employees.

Hartsfield-Jackson Airport Aviation General Manager Miguel Southwell stressed that every airport is different and has a unique risk profile. Southwell said his airport’s aviation department has been meeting with TSA, Customs and Border Patrol, the FAA, and other key stakeholders to develop security plans for Hartsfield-Jackson, including reprogramming SIDA badges to reduce the number of entrances badge holders can access depending on their job duties. He also mentioned developing processes to screen all employees.

However, TSA’s Hatfield cited a 2008 TSA study that found random employee screenings are nearly as effective as 100 percent screening and are much more efficient. And the ASAC report notes that “the provision of so-called ‘100 percent measures’ as a layer of airport security does not appreciably increase the overall level of system-wide protection, nor does it lower overall risk.”

Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president of legislative and regulatory policy for advocacy group Airlines for America, discussed a number of concerns at the hearing, including “requiring that local law enforcement agencies notify federal law enforcement agencies, i.e. the FBI and DHS, of any ongoing criminal investigation of an airport employee.”

Pinkerton also advocated for ongoing employee vetting, noting that “there is no current system to inform employers should an employee be charged with a crime after the criminal history records check,” she said. “For example, if an employee hired in Virginia is arrested in Nevada, the employer would only know of the arrest if the employee self-disclosed the arrest.”

In its report, ASAC agreed that employee vetting should be strengthened by instituting continuous criminal activity monitoring through the inclusion of additional federal data sources, as well as maintaining a national database of airport employees whose credentials have been revoked.

The need for a layered approach to employee security became even clearer a few weeks after the hearing, when an NBC investigation revealed that 1,400 SIDA badges have gone missing over the past two years at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport. Badges are deactivated as soon as they are reported lost or stolen, but the investigation found that employees often delayed reporting a missing badge.

A spokesperson told NBC that the airport does “not believe that lost or stolen badges pose a significant security threat to the airport” because employees must present a photo ID along with their badge and punch in a passcode when accessing a sterile area. But experts say that a bad actor with a badge and a fake ID can sneak in through an open perimeter and blend in. The investigation also found that badge-sharing and piggybacking—following another employee through the security door without swiping a badge—are also concerns.

It is unclear whether this problem is prevalent only at Hartsfield-Jackson, because TSA blocked the release of further badge data once the report came out. But senators have asked the TSA for more information on the lost badges at Hartsfield-Jackson, as well as the percentage of SIDA badges unaccounted for over the last five years at all 400 TSA-facilitated airports.

The ASAC report recommended that TSA strengthen policies associated with SIDA badges, including enhancing auditing practices for issued badges and expanding the use of CCTV systems to monitor employees at entry points.

SIDA badge holders are not the only employees who can take advantage of potential loopholes. Employees who work at the shops inside the security checkpoint area go through the same security screening as passengers, but one group of workers encounters unique security situations on the job: airline caterers. UNITE HERE, a labor union representing 12,000 airline catering employees, recently released a report that highlights security problems at the back doors of America’s airports.

The union surveyed its members—the cooks, dishwashers, runners, warehouse workers, drivers, and other employees who prepare and deliver food to flights—and the concerns raised “require immediate action by the TSA, airlines, and airline catering employers,” the report states.

Airline catering trucks have been left parked on public streets or in parking lots with open gates, presenting opportunities for a bad actor to compromise the vehicle. Employees are expected to complete a thorough inspection of their trucks at the beginning of each shift, but the report found that half of catering drivers surveyed witnessed incomplete truck inspections.

Only 33 percent of members reported that security is tight in their kitchens, and 24 percent said an unauthorized person could enter their kitchen and a foreign object could be added to a cart destined for an airplane. Another security concern is the industry’s instability—airline catering kitchens, which are privately owned, have 44 percent turnover, compared to the TSA’s 6.4 percent turnover rate.

“Short-term employment gaps can result in the use of temporary employees, even in kitchens where full-time employees are required to have screening and security badges,” the report states.

Like Benny and Pinkerton, UNITE HERE calls for more regulation of airline employees and third-party contractors. The report recommends enacting full supply-chain security requirements, including a TSA presence in any kitchen where meals for flights are prepared; encouraging food preparation to take place at the airport rather than off-airport facilities; and immediately ending the use of temporary labor.