The Transportation Security Administration is imposing more stringent regulations for screening airport and airline workers, four months after federal authorities discovered that a Delta Air Lines baggage handler allegedly was part of a ring that smuggled guns from Atlanta to New York.
Announced Monday by Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, the rules also come in reaction to a separate incident in which a Federal Aviation Administration employee allegedly used a badge to access a secure area at the same airport — Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport — and then flew to New York with a gun in his carry-on luggage.
“Immediately following the incident” with the Delta baggage handler, “TSA increased the random and unpredictable screening of aviation workers at various airport access points to mitigate potential security vulnerabilities,” Johnson said in his announcement.
Johnson said he had asked the TSA’s Aviation Security Advisory Committee to review the incidents and recommend remedies. Acting on five of the recommendations that can be implemented quickly, Johnson said that airport and airline employees who are traveling as passengers would no longer be permitted to bypass the scrutiny faced by other passengers. Anyone who boards an airplane other than on-duty pilots and crew will be screened, he said.
Airports will also be required to reduce the number of access points to secure areas and to subject airport workers to random screening throughout each workday, he said, adding that the TSA may send teams in unannounced to do random worker screens. Johnson also said the TSA is working with the FBI to continuously track the criminal histories of all aviation workers.
“We’re not creating any new whole-cloth federal regulations,” said Mark Hatfield Jr., the TSA’s acting deputy administrator. “We’re moving within existing authority.”
Hatfield said the cost of the security enhancements to the TSA, airlines and airports was still being calculated.
At least two Atlanta airport workers allegedly conspired to smuggle guns and ammunition onto at least 20 flights bound for New York between May and December of last year. In announcing the charges in December, federal authorities said 153 guns had been recovered during the investigation.
The arrest warrant affidavit for Eugene Harvey, identified as a Delta baggage handler, said Harvey used his security clearance to funnel guns to a passenger named Mark Henry after Henry had cleared security. Henry, identified as a former employee, allegedly carried the weapons on at least 20 flights to New York, the Justice Department said in an affidavit.
The affidavit said that Henry delivered two assault rifles and 129 handguns to other members of the smuggling ring in New York. One of those ring members sold the guns to an undercover New York police officer, the affidavit said.
The affidavit, filed in U.S. District Court in Atlanta on Dec. 19, said Henry was arrested on Dec. 10 after flying to New York with 18 handguns, seven of them loaded, in his carry-on bag. His arrest came after another airport worker reported unspecified suspicious activity by the pair, authorities said.
An internal DHS document said the smuggling ring “raised questions about whether a security vulnerability exists, possibly allowing an aviation worker with an airport identification badge to ignore current security measures and introduce weapons, explosives or other contraband for transport on a commercial aircraft.”
When the charges were announced in December, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson said, “If [airport workers] can put guns on the plane this time, they could have easily put a bomb on one of those planes.”
Thompson said “lax gun laws” in Georgia allowed Harvey to buy guns online without a background check. Using his airport badge at an employee entrance, Harvey carried the guns into the airport and then met Henry in a men’s room in the secure section of the airport, where Henry paid him in cash, Thompson said.
Hatfield, in an interview Monday, said that random screenings at employee access points will deter wrongdoing. “By dialing up the random screening we increase the sense among employees that their bags may be checked,” Hatfield said.
“This is a decent first step,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, said Monday. “But we need to continue to look at the long-term picture and see how we can broaden this in a cost-effective way.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called the DHS action “a prompt response and a significant first step to closing the gaping loopholes in airport security, especially with regard to reducing access points and enhancing criminal background checks.”
Under the directions announced by Johnson on Monday, the TSA also will require the federal officials who supervise airport security to develop plans for stricter aviation worker screening at each airport. Some airport workers will receive additional training in how to spot suspicious behavior by their colleagues.
The TSA conducts annual inspections of security at all commercial airports.
Applicants for airport or airline jobs already face several types of screening. They are checked for criminal records; their immigration status is reviewed; and they are checked against the terrorist-screening database. All of that information is received by the TSA, which informs the airport or airline whether access to secure areas has been granted or denied.
Until the FBI develops a plan for continuous criminal background checks, the TSA will require that security be checked every two years.
After the arrest in Atlanta, the airport reprogrammed all of the badges that allowed access to secure areas.