The Atlanta airport is trying to increase screening of employees who now bypass security checkpoints, following the discovery of an alleged gun-running scheme involving an airline worker.
But it’s no simple task.
Some 45,000 workers have badges giving them access to secure areas of the airport, and about 20,000 work at the airport on any given day, Hartsfield-Jackson International general manager Miguel Southwell said. Some pass in and out of secure areas many times in a day.
The Transportation Security Administration screens some 55,000 passengers a day in Atlanta, and funneling workers through the same checkpoints would lengthen lines and wait times. Southwell estimates it would cost as much as $35 million for security facilities to fully screen employees, and up to $11 million annually to run them.
Screening all employees at airports across the nation could cost $5.7 billion to $14.9 billion for the first year, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The TSA’s entire annual budget is about $7.3 billion.
Employee screening “does need to be improved,” said Jeff Price, a professor of aviation at Metropolitan State University of Denver and author of a book on aviation security. But, he added, “to have to go through screening constantly just creates a logistical and operational slowdown.”
What’s more, workers at Hartsfield-Jackson enter secure areas of the airport through some 70 different entrances today, including secure doors, elevators and turnstiles throughout the airport that require a card swipe. That’s far more portals than the six checkpoints passengers are funneled through.
Existing safeguards include background checks before workers get badges and daily cross-checks against the terrorist watch list. But those are not foolproof.
“We have had some recent incidents in the area of security that should give us all concern,” Southwell said. “Any system is only as strong as its weakest link…. At our airport we need to do more.”
Bag checks added
In late February the airport started checking bags of airport workers using two entrances in the domestic terminal they use to get to secure areas. Yet that’s just a starting point: It does not include a metal detector check, and employees can use other entrances without having their bags checked.
The airport also plans to reduce the number of employee access portals to 10 or fewer and re-program employee badges to reduce the number of portals they can use.
Delta Air Lines has started randomly screening workers who take employee buses onto the tarmac. The airport said it also inspects vehicles, goods and people that come onto the airfield, and last year it began continuous inspection of the perimeter fence.
Southwell said the eventual goal is screening of all workers — with exceptions for law enforcement, emergency personnel, other first responders and employees screened under different systems such as TSA's Known Crewmember program. Details and funding are yet to be worked out, however, and it's likely to take nine to 18 months to fully implement. Southwell hopes for some TSA funding.
“It is a great task, but it is also something we have to contemplate because of the high profile of Atlanta as the world’s busiest airport,” Southwell said.
An advisory committee to the TSA is studying the issue to make recommendations.
A Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General report found that screening all airport employees “raises feasibility issues, ” such as staffing and physical changes at checkpoints.
“It can be done, but it changes the way you do security,” said Reno, Nev.-based security consultant Doug Laird. “It’s something that needs to be done. Just because somebody passed a background check doesn’t mean they don’t need to be screened.”
According to a TSA report in 2009, Homeland Security Institute found that random screening is “roughly” as effective in finding contraband items as 100 percent employee screening. But Southwell said the terrorist threat has changed since then.
“With what we’ve seen in the last six months and the evolution of course of the insider threat where you have Americans being recruited, certainly greater thought has to be given to not just giving employees the expectation that they will be screened…. but giving the employee the impression of certainty that they will be screened,” Southwell said.
The Hartsfield-Jackson gun-running scheme came to light in December, when a Delta baggage handler was charged with helping to smuggle guns onto jets bound for New York City. The worker used his employee access to secure areas to smuggle guns into the airport and pass them to another man who took them onto flights to New York, according to the charges.
“It’s just the latest event to occur that shows there’s a vulnerability,” Laird said.
In another recent incident, a Federal Aviation Administration safety inspector was caught with a gun in his bag after landing in New York on a flight from Atlanta. That led the FAA to suspend a program allowing inspectors to bypass TSA screening checkpoints while doing their jobs.
Such incidents have happened periodically at various airports. Last year, an AirTran baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson was sentenced to 10 years in prison for bypassing TSA security with a machine gun. Four JetBlue employees and one Delta employee in Boston were charged with smuggling cash and evading airport security checkpoints, and a California man was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for his role as a supplier to a drug trafficking network, with the help of an airport employee.
A question of money
It’s unclear how much funding is available and from where. The TSA already faces budget pressure and last week faced possible furloughs amid congressional battles over Homeland Security funding. Airlines pay for some of their own security costs, but may be reluctant to pay a significantly higher bill for full screening. Few airports — which are typically part of city, county or state governments — have volunteered to pay to screen all of the workers of airlines, contractors and others who come through airport entryways.
“Somebody’s cost is going up,” Price said, adding that passengers will end up paying for it. “They’re going to increase parking lot fees, charge more for concessions… At some point, does it increase your taxes?”
Even with 100 percent screening there are still vulnerabilities, such as tossing a bag over a perimeter fence or smuggling one in on revolving baggage belts, through truck deliveries or cargo facilities, or on connecting flights from other airports without such screening.
Two major airports do full screening of employees — Miami and Orlando, both seeking to stem drug and weapons smuggling.
With attention focused on Atlanta since the gun-running case, Southwell said the airport has spent the weeks since developing short- and long-term plans to tighten employee access. He hopes to pilot automated security screening systems for employees that may involve biometrics and other technology.
“We will be focusing on smarter access control,” Southwell said. “No system is fool-proof… But I believe there’s quite a bit of room for improvement.”