U.S. Flights Can Still Be Hijacked
I recently conducted a detailed investigation of security at our nation’s airports, and was shocked by the magnitude of deficiencies ripe for terrorist exploitation that I found after visiting various sites and interviewing assorted industry employees from four major airlines. I was disturbed to learn of several easy ways to get any handheld weapon onboard or to place a bomb on almost any domestic flight. Looks like Osama is still in business –- U.S. flights are his for the taking.
It seems that most of the post-Sept. 11 security upgrades have been primarily focused on things travelers can see, specifically on increased screening of passengers before they board the plane –- including integrated intelligence programs to check passenger lists against databases of possible terror suspects, updated X-Ray and metal-detector equipment at gates, more qualified officials at security posts, and more frequent body searches of passengers before they enter the gates.
But behind the scenes, it’s been business as usual. In most airports, aside from more thorough background checks, there have been little or no security measures added to the routines of the tens of thousands of aircraft cargo workers. At many airports, and at most airlines at Miami International, where my research focused, these employees still don’t go through metal detectors or X-ray machines, have little direct onsite supervision or outdoor surveillance and, incredibly, in many cases they have separate, unsecured access to passenger gates.
One cargo worker for Delta Airlines in Miami described the situation as “a huge sham”:
The government prompted all these changes in passenger boarding because that’s what people see, that’s what creates the impression of security. But it’s all meaningless if they don’t spend the money to change our situation.
After the cargo is received in the cargo facility, where maybe 5 percent of the boxes are actually X-rayed or manually inspected, we then have unfettered access to move, tamper, re-label, or add to any shipments. I can put what I want into any container. Plus, I don’t go through any metal detectors and I have access to passenger parts of the airport.
To outline a few of my findings, here are some easy, obvious ways to get a weapon onboard at Miami International:
Any cargo worker brings a weapon of choice to work in a backpack or on his body, and parks his car in the designated parking area for employees, which is either inside or very close to the cargo facility. The cargo worker enters the cargo building without inspection or having to pass any metal detectors. He then drives his cargo tractor from the cargo building into the Aircraft Operating Area, where he swipes his security card through a magnetic reader and gains access to the “secured” aircraft area, again without ever being subject to metal detectors or inspection. There is a security officer at the AOA entrance who verifies it is, in fact, the employee who is checking in.
The cargo guy, weapon in tow, takes any of the ramp-to-concourse elevators by simply swiping his identification badge outside the elevator to open its door and then again inside the elevator to press the second-floor button, again without ever having to pass security or inspection. Cargo man and weapon are now in the concourse, where passengers have already passed through security and have been approved for boarding.
Most cargo workers aren’t allowed in the passenger boarding areas, but workers say this rule is not strictly enforced since some cargo employees have business there, such as to coordinate special baggage needs with gate agents or flight personnel. Unauthorized cargo employees routinely enter the gates unchallenged to use the airport restaurants and stores or to meet family and friends who are flying.
There is even a cargo worker at Miami’s American Airlines who brings a bag to work that may include a steak knife for lunch (which usually consists of cooked red meat for their high-protein diet). Once, without consequence, the worker brought the bag onto the employee elevator and into the passenger boarding area, forgetting it contained the knife. The worker claims one can easily pack a gun without anyone knowing.
A passenger meets the cargo worker in the bathroom where he passes on the weapon. Now the passenger is armed and ready to hijack.
It’s that simple.
And getting a bomb onboard? Any cargo worker can smuggle a small explosive into the AOA using the same method I described above. Keep in mind that once the cargo leaves the cargo building on the worker’s tractor, it has already passed any inspection and X-ray. There are many ways to get the explosive on board. Here are just a few:
1) Cargo worker discreetly places the bomb into a Unit Load Device or house container. Cargo workers report that many ULDs are in poor condition with curtains that don’t close all the way or doors that don’t secure. They can slip the bomb in at any point in their journey from the cargo warehouse to the aircraft operating area.
2) Workers report that many shipments can be found sitting unsupervised at the departure gate several hours before an aircraft’s departure. Anyone with access can just put the bomb into one of these shipments, which workers say are rarely subject to secondary inspection.
3) Cargo workers routinely carry small shipments (called hand-carry shipments) themselves. These shipments are low in weight and would not be placed into the ULDs for space efficiency purposes. Instead, they are randomly tossed by line crew members into the forward, middle or rear cargo hold -– inside the plane -– without any scrutiny. A cargo worker can just place the bomb into one of these small shipments and carry it to the loading area.
4) Cargo man packs the explosive into one of the many crates or cardboard skids of food the airlines routinely transport. These crates/skids are often damaged during handling, and are open enough to pack the explosive.
5) Cargo workers can go so far as to even bring their own box from home containing the bomb. Cargo workers say that shipment labels can be easily stolen from the cargo facility and used to label the box for the appropriate destination, or a label can be taken from another bulk shipment set for that destination, making it look real. A cargo worker can just bring the box with him on the tractor and put it with the other approved shipments he is driving to the loading area. They say no one would think twice.
If the cargo worker arrives at the departure gate with his homemade box and bomb a bit early, even better. He can just put the box inside the aircraft himself, which would not be uncommon. When the line crew members -– whose job it is to actually load the cargo on the aircraft -– arrive and see that the shipment is properly labeled, I am told it would be pushed to the rear of the cargo hold without being checked and sent on its way, as often occurs.
There is a crew chief responsible for logging all cargo items onboard the aircraft. He carries a “load plan,” which lists weights of every object being stored, and has the exact positions for their loading, which is predetermined by a satellite office. The crew chief conducts a final lockout of the aircraft, which becomes the offload sheet for the arrival city.
But this means nothing. It is not uncommon for shipments to be loaded and dispatched without the crew chief’s knowledge. One American Airlines cargo worker told me that “things happen so fast, boxes that are not catalogued or part of the crew chief’s official manifest are loaded all the time. It’s routine. And the crew chief could care less. So it’s not a problem.”
6) Anyone can just ship the bomb as part of normal passenger cargo /luggage and just take a chance that it wont be inspected. Even though the Transportation Security Administration’s deadline for implementing strict government screening of passenger cargo recently passed, most airlines, including many at Miami International, were allowed to revert to private screening companies that many workers say are ineffectual.
A senior crew chief for American Airlines told me that right before the deadline, the TSA brought sophisticated inspection equipment to selected cargo warehouses where the threat was greatest.
“This elaborate show of government technology,” he said, “lasted about two weeks. Then the TSA packed up and left the whole inspection process to a private security firm staffed by very poorly trained, low-paid individuals working with antiquated X-ray machines. The machine in my facility has to be at least 30 years old.”
“These workers randomly inspect red-flagged cargo having none of the capabilities of the TSA equipment. The machines we are using now depend entirely on the visual skills of the operators, who I catch slacking off all the time.”
It’s been three years since Osama bin Laden’s warriors hijacked our airliners to pull off the most spectacular and devastating terror attack on U.S. soil, and aviation security officials still don’t have their acts together.
All of this was partly highlighted Monday, Feb. 23, when 14 airline employees -– 11 of them cargo workers –- were arrested at Miami International for coordinating the transport of cocaine and heroine from Latin America to other U.S. destinations. The accused allegedly used some of the same methods I describe to load over 200 pounds of drugs onto planes and send them to undercover cargo agents in Baltimore, Dallas and Nashville. The cargo workers had been getting away with the scheme for over four years, which implies a major lack of supervision.
I was told by many workers that the government and the airlines are well aware of the enormous security lapses in the cargo department, but that neither is willing to spend the kind of money needed to correct the situation. (Although all government and airline security officials told about the specific lapses that allow cargo workers to bring a weapon to a passenger claimed to be shocked).
It’s only a matter of time before these lapses are used to hijack or blow up more U.S. airliners, and the governments’ and airlines’ gross security negligence will be to blame. I strongly suggest they act now.
I’ve detailed only a few of the many security deficiencies ready for terrorist exploitation that I found. If anyone needs further information, just visit some cargo workers at an airport near you.