Recently, several sewing needles turned up in catered meals on Delta Airlines. While there are public health and safety concerns, and the FBI is investigating, it begs the question, just how secure are the catering facilities that bring food onto commercial aircraft. Also, consider that in one of the most famous hijackings of all time, TWA Flight 847 in 1985, caterers smuggled guns and grenades onto the flight so that the hijackers could successfully get through the metal detectors, then, once on board, retrieved the weapons from their hiding places in the lavatory and hijacked the flight. Could that still happen today?
It’s likely that the next hijacking will not look like that last. Box cutters, knives and fake bombs are unlikely to deter passengers who believe that they are about to die. However, could, as in a scenario presented in the cancelled TV show, The Unit, hijackers use smuggled submachine guns and actual hand grenades to overtake a flight? Possibly. And how would they get the weapons on board, so that they are accessible to the hijackers? Catering.
TSA does require that the aircraft operator ensure the security of catered goods. Aircraft operators have the responsibility to ensure that anything or anyone brought onto their aircraft has been properly screened or inspected. The exact guidance for how that is carried out is within the aircraft operator security coordinator security programs and to their defense, it’s extraordinarily difficult for the airline, through a physical inspection process, or even through an x-ray machine, to identify sewing needles. Also, individuals who access the airfield to deliver catered goods, must pass a fingerprint based criminal history record check and a security threat assessment. Additionally, most catering facilities have good security just from a health regulatory perspective. I remember the few times I had to conduct inspections at the catering area on the airport, and the security for the facility was tighter than the intelligence center I used to work at in the Coast Guard.
But, does TSA need to take another look at the security of catering facilities? What about the personnel that take the goods to the aircraft? Can another TWA 847 happen?