A recent report of airline employees smuggling guns through commercial airliners has raised security concerns about the “insider threat.” 

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The key question is: is this a threat? While anytime guns are in the cabin of an airplane illegally, we can call that a threat, the real question is – if guns can be illegally smuggled onto an airplane then can a bomb get on a plane, or can someone smuggle guns onto the plane in order to hijack it.

The short answer is yes. Not only is this possible, but it’s been done several times throughout aviation’s long history. The most notable incident is the flight of PSA 1771 in 1987, where a disgruntled employee brought a gun onto the airplane, shot his supervisor, then killed the flight crew. The plane plunged from altitude and killed all 44 upon impact. Afterwards, the common misperception is that afterwards all employees were required to go through passenger screening checkpoints as a result of the incident.

Not true.

In fact, to this day, hundreds of thousands of employees do not go through passenger screening checkpoints, but have access to the sterile area (i.e. the concourses) and have access to airplanes. But does this represent a hole in security.

Not necessarily.

To the average traveler “screening,” means something entirely different than what those of us in the industry believe to be screening. To a passenger or anyone unfamiliar with the system, screening means that you walked through the checkpoint, had yourself and your stuff scanned by some sort of technology and you are now free from prohibited items. But there are many layers of security to our system, not just the screening checkpoint.

For many aviation employees, screening consists of the credentialing check that is done when the individual gets hired. This check includes a fingerprint-based criminal history record check through the FBI’s database and a Security Threat Assessment conducted by TSA, which includes a run of the aviation employee’s name and personally identifiable information through the Terrorist Screening Center. Other databases are also checked to see if the individual is known by law enforcement and should be given access to an airfield.

The individual is then trained in the use of their identification badge and their security responsibilities. While not specifically regulated, part of the training usually includes the requirement to notify airport security or law enforcement if the badge holder suspects criminal activity. Thus, if you think your co-worker is smuggling guns or drugs on an airplane, you’re supposed to call someone.

There are gaps in this system of course. For example, if someone does not have a criminal history, or hasn’t committed one of 28 disqualifying offenses in the past decade, then they can theoretically get an airport ID badge. By the way, theft is not one of the 28, but airport operators can add to this list if they see fit. They can also extend the 10 years if they write it into their Airport Security Programs and it’s approved by TSA.

Also, once passed, only the Security Threat Assessment is required to be repeated when the badge comes up for renewal, which is every one to two years. The badge holder, and usually by reference, their employer, are required to report if the employee is convicted of a disqualifying crime in the interim, to airport security.

Why does this gap exist? Why is “trust” part of our security layers? Well, as Stephen M.R. Covey notes in the Speed of Trust, it costs a lot more money and it slows the system down tremendously if we don’t trust someone.

Now that we know there is a gap – or a few – let’s look at the solutions.

1: Require all employees to go through the passenger checkpoint. 
Some airports, including Orlando, have done this. To be specific though, they don’t require all the employees to use the screening checkpoints – they’ve created other areas for accessing the airfield for the screening to be conducted. Further, they use their own money to finance the screening operations and have hired their own contractors to do the screening.

The challenge with implementing screening for all employees throughout the United States comes down to money and operational efficiencies. Many aviation employees must move from airside to landside, through the terminal and through the airfield gates, throughout the day in order to perform their basic job duties. Restricting or delaying this access will result in delayed responses to everything from moving bags around to responding to emergencies. Also, many aviation employees use tools that are on the prohibited items list and it creates additional challenges (and operational inefficiencies) to figure out who is allowed through the checkpoint with what.

Second, the current screener staffing models are based on passenger throughput. To start pushing hundreds of thousands of aviation employees through those areas will require hiring tens of thousands more screeners, buying more equipment and changing the way checkpoints are designed to accommodate the larger influx. U.S. airports are designed to handle the majority of employees arriving by private car, not public transportation (which is the way many European airports are designed), so there would be additional changes in airport design to accommodate those aviation employees. It all costs a ton of money and it may not be worth the reward. There are other options such as. . .

2. Require all airports to implement suspicious awareness training for all personnel and establish security management systems. These programs are very low cost, act as a force multiplier and are highly effective.

Unfortunately, the threats today are changing faster than the regulatory requirements, so our industry must be forward-thinking – not just meeting the latest TSA requirements but identifying and implementing industry best practices. Just mentioning the “see something say something,” requirement isn’t enough. Employees must be trained to spot certain indicators of criminal and terrorist activities. There is also a benefit in this training by reducing workplace violence incidents.

3. More effective policing at airports: many airport police understand that criminal activity takes place at an airport. It’ not enough to just walk around the airport and “be a presence.” Airport police departments should have active anti-crime divisions focused on theft, smuggling and related criminal activities. Again, another low cost alternative to screening everyone.

4. Implementation of biometrics into airport access control systems. While some airports have integrated biometrics into their employee access control systems, most have not and it’s not required by regulations. It should be. Otherwise, it doesn’t take much for someone to borrow or steal an airport ID badge and use it to access an airplane or airfield.

These additional layers of security can reduce the likelihood of individuals smuggling guns or anything else through an airport. It’s also why layers such as the Federal Flight Deck Officer program, and the Air Marshal program need to remain in place. Otherwise, the system will cost a LOT more money, your AIRFAREs will increase significantly as a result, all to get a slightly smaller benefit in security.

The fact is, we can always be safer and more secure. The question is, how much more do you want to pay for it, and how much longer do you want to spend at the airport?

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