The attempt by a Skywest pilot to steal an aircraft at the airport in St. George, UT raises several security questions.
From early reports, it appears that Skywest had confiscated the employee’s airline and hopefully, his airport credentials, denying him his normal access through the screening checkpoints or airport access control system. Credentialing is one of the most important layers in the aviation security system, as airline and airport employees can bypass many of the security layers with their creds.
While individuals who are issued airline and airport ID are required to undergo a fingerprint-based criminal history record check and security threat assessment, but it is difficult to determine whether an individual has a mental issue or a past history of domestic violence, if they have never been convicted of a crime. Some airlines conduct psychological reviews of pilots prior to hiring, but that is still not a guarantee that there won’t be a problem in the future – pilots prepare for their psych screen, just like they prepare for their simulator ride and the interview itself, so it’s possible to game the system.
Removing the fact that the individual was an airline employee what about his ability to jump the perimeter fence at the airport and access the aircraft. There are two issues here. First, the fence. The airport was likely in compliance with the TSA requirements for perimeter fencing – these requirements call for a minimum 7′ of fencing and 3′ of barbed or razor wire on top. The requirements do not call for a CCTV monitoring system or a Perimeter Intrusion Detection System (PIDS). Why not? The straight answer is, unlike in Israel or some other locations, the threat doesn’t warrant any higher security measures. There just hasn’t been enough occurrences with tragic results of individuals accessing the security areas of an airport through the gates or over the fence. While there have been some incidents recently, such as individuals driving through a perimeter gate at an airport, they were not able to access an aircraft and were stopped by airport police.
Second, what about access to the aircraft? Aircraft that are on “RON,” or Remain Overnight, are required to be secured when unattended. Regional jets do not have keys to start the aircraft and hopefully in this case the aircraft door was secured, but it’s likely that the pilot learned how to open the aircraft door about week one on the job. Whether the aircraft was secured and how the assailant gained access will be an important question in the investigation.
Maybe it’s time to look more closely at airport perimeter security. Or, it’s time to take a breath, wait for the facts and just see if this was one of those incidents where an individual with access and knowledge of the system, decided to take advantage. Unfortunately, while we watch and learn from this incident, so do people who continue to want to do us harm.