Russian Jetliner Disaster Renews Airport Security Concerns

Nov 13, 2015
Originally published on November 16, 2015 3:47 pm
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We still don't know for sure what brought down the Russian jetliner just minutes after it took off from an airport in Egypt. But Western officials say there's a good chance it was a bomb, possibly placed on board by an airport worker. That is raising questions about airport security not only in Egypt, but also here in the U.S. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Last December, just a few days before Christmas, WSB TV in Atlanta reported some disturbing news.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: New developments now in a major security breach at Atlanta's airport. And it resulted in dozens of weapons getting on to Delta planes.

NAYLOR: A Delta baggage handler, not subject to airport screening, and an accomplice, were able to smuggle over 150 weapons and ammunition on several flights from Atlanta to New York. It was, said Brooklyn DA Kenneth Thompson, an egregious breach of airport security.

KENNETH THOMPSON: This scheme really poses a threat in terms of terrorism. They can put guns on a plane this time, they could have easily put a bomb on one of those planes.

NAYLOR: The threat of airport workers - insiders planting a bomb on an aircraft - is one that has long worried U.S. officials. Congressman Adam Schiff of California is the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

ADAM SCHIFF: We don't have adequate controls on employees with access to the aircraft. We have made some improvements, I think, but nonetheless, we still haven't, I think, sealed off that method of trying to gain access for those that might want to destroy an aircraft in midair.

NAYLOR: After the incident in Atlanta, the TSA took steps to tighten security at airports nationwide. It now subjects all airport employees to criminal background checks every two years instead of just when they are hired. It also required airports to reduce the number of access points where workers pass into secure areas. But is that enough? Chad Wolf is a former TSA assistant administrator.

CHAD WOLF: I don't know if it's a matter of packaging that, but there's a public perception out there that enough is not being done. And there's always that - the balance of well, we can't say too much because we don't want the bad guys to know what we really do. But there's a reassurance that the American public doesn't have when it comes to screening airport workers.

NAYLOR: Another former TSA official, Tom Blank, says airport employees and their gear should all be subject to the same screening that passengers go through.

TOM BLANK: I think it would be useful to have backpacks, lunch pails, toolboxes run through an x-ray machine. That's not currently being done. It would be useful, potentially, to have airport airline workers go through a walk-through metal detector, perhaps a body imaging machine, on their way to work.

NAYLOR: The TSA has instituted random screening of airport workers but stopped short of requiring all workers to go through metal detectors after an advisory committee of airport and airline officials said 100 percent screening would not be a silver bullet, and that there were other, less costly methods of securing airports. Congressman Schiff believes that perhaps the time has come to rethink that.

SCHIFF: I think it may very well be necessary to make sure we're screening everyone, that everyone has to go through checkpoints to get access to the aircraft, or the tarmac, or the baggage, or the catering. It may add some time, but nonetheless, we're better off being safe because yet one tragedy involving one of our airliners could really cripple the air industry for some time.

NAYLOR: The House has passed a bill calling for a study of how much it would cost to subject all of the nation's 900,000 airport workers to daily screening. The Senate has yet to act. Brian Naylor NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.