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Employee Screening and the Insider Threat

IMG_9190Aviation employee screening is an initiative that is gaining a lot of momentum so it’s time to fully address it.

Throughout the history of aviation security, employees have been directly responsible or assisted in the facilitation of numerous attacks. Many of these incidents are catalogued and explained in my textbook, Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats. Feel free to pick up a copy if you’d like to read through them, but otherwise let’s get started with the discussion.

I would hazard a guess that most passengers believe that employees are required to go through some sort of screening that is similar in nature to what the passengers themselves are required to undergo. However, the term “screening,” can mean many things. For the passenger it means going through the screening checkpoint and being subjected to the TSA processes that we are all very familiar with.

To an employee, “screening” typically means they had passed a criminal history record check and security threat assessment, received an airport identification badge and undergone security training. The badge allows access through doors that bypass the screening checkpoints, but not all of the employees that work at an airport have this level of access. In fact, it is good security to reduce the number of people that have access to security areas in general, to only those necessary.

On its face, the simple solution seems to be to just make all of the employees go through the screening checkpoint. This is not as easy as it sounds. First, passenger checkpoints are designed based on actual and projected passenger throughput numbers. Checkpoint design can be found in the open source document, Recommended Security Guidelines for Airport Planning, Design and Construction, published by the TSA and available as a PDF online. If you add more people to a checkpoint, you will need a larger checkpoint, more personnel and more equipment. Not all airports have the space to be able to continually expand their checkpoints to accommodate tens of thousands of employees in addition to the current passenger traffic.

Second, many airport and airline employees move between the sterile, public and airfield security areas throughout the day. These are individuals with an operational necessity to transition these areas and requiring them to go through a checkpoint is impractical and costly. Saying that an employee can simply “go to the front of the line” does not solve the problem when you may have hundreds of employees that are now required to move through the checkpoint.

That said, airports such as Orlando and Miami have figured it out. Let’s not assume that they are sending everyone through the passenger checkpoint however. Also, both Miami and Orlando are paying for private security to conduct the employee screening/inspection functions. TSA is not doing it. We can and should implement employee inspection or screening processes to all commercial service airports. But there are a few realities that we must all accept.

If you want the airport to actually, function any system that you put into place there will be certain individuals who are exempt from going through the checkpoint or inspection process, and there will be a different prohibited items list for employees.

Some of these individuals such as police, fire, paramedics are self-explanatory. Other personnel such as airport operations, these are the people that actually make sure the airport functions, that your runways are plowed of snow, that emergencies are handled and that the airfield and terminal is maintained in a safe condition for operation, should also be exempt. To restrict their access reduces their ability to keep the airport functioning smoothly and efficiently, thus slowing down the entire national airspace system.

Certain maintenance personnel will also have to be exempted. When there is an access door that allows passengers out of the plane that is jammed shut, you don’t want to wait for the maintenance guy to make it through the screening checkpoint to come out there and get the door fixed.

Exempting anyone introduces risk, but we will have to accept that level of risk if we want the airport to actually function. It’s the same level of risk we all except when we know that not everyone in a position of trust can actually be trusted.

The next reality is that this is going to cost money. Lots of money. This is not going to be something TSA does. Considering numerous congressional actions over the years to keep a tight hold on the homeland security budget don’t expect this to be a TSA function. No. In all likelihood this will be a regulatory mandate and it will fall squarely upon the shoulders of the airport operator.

 The airport operator will have to figure out how to pay for thousands of private security personnel, ensure that they are properly trained, supervised, managed and so forth, purchase equipment and make design changes to the airport to accommodate these inspection areas.

This money will have to come from somewhere and it’s going to come from you, the traveling public. With the airline industry already opposing the increase of airport Passenger Facility Charges, which pay for things like runways, taxiways and other things to keep your airport safe and handling the capacity that is demanded of it by the traveling public, any other fee increases at the airport level are likely to not go over well. These security monies would not come from PFCs as that is only for capital projects, it will come in the form of higher parking rates, higher landing fees (so your ticket prices will increase) and you will be paying more money for a hamburger at the airport.

Already the industry is looking at ways to implement employee inspection procedures. And I use the term “inspection,” rather than screening. If we are going to do this, let’s call it what it really is and not confuse the traveling public that these employees will actually be screened the way they are. Some will but for these programs to work and not hinder the efficiency of the aviation system, and make flying incredibly expensive, we’ll be inspecting, not screening, most of the employees.

I understand that some airports are already screening or saying that they can screen their employee workforce without much cost or change to their procedures and checkpoints, but when you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport. Just because one airport can do it, not every airport can do it the same way.

The time has finally come for the industry to face the threat of the employee insider. With US citizens leaving the country to join the likes ISIS and Al Qaeda, it is only a matter of time before one comes home, and gets a job at an airport, just like a British Airways employee did a few years back. If that happens, we may have another 9/11.

This is preventable. Its time to address this issue and implement employee inspections into airport security, along with some other measures such as biometrics in airport access control systems (not currently required), and suspicious awareness and workplace violence training (also not currently required) so we can prevent another day on the calendar from becoming synonymous with tragedy.

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