As TSA continues on pace to break its all-time annual record for firearms collected at checkpoints, guns continue to aggravate security efforts at U.S. airports. But the problems don't end with the recovery of wayward weapons at passenger screening stations.
Case in point: the highly publicized gun-smuggling ring broken up at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). Eugene Harvey, the Delta Air Lines baggage handler at the center of the case, may have unwittingly become the de facto poster boy for full employee screening.
Harvey allegedly used his security clearance to illegally move guns from the sterile side of ATL to an accomplice named Mark Quentin Henry, who posed as a passenger. With knowledge from his stint as a former Delta ramp agent, Henry successfully received firearms from Harvey and smuggled them onto flights in his carry-on luggage. Investigators say Harvey and Henry ran the scheme on at least 20 flights from ATL to New York airports from May 2014 to December 2014, when both were arrested as part of a larger trafficking ring. In total, five people were charged with conspiring to sell 153 firearms, including AK-47 assault weapons and 9-millimeter handguns. Harvey was the member who breached ATL's airside security.
Project: Security Improvements
Airport: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Int'l Airport
Operating Entity: City of Atlanta Dept. of Aviation
Cost: $12 million
Funding: City of Atlanta Dept. of Aviation
Primary Components: Full employee screening; reducing access portals; reducing employees with access to areas that require security credentials
Project Stakeholders: TSA; Dept. of Homeland Security; airlines; airport tenants
Employee Screening Lane Oversight: Healthcare Security Services
Noteworthy Details: City-funded improvements were spurred by exposure of a gunrunning ring involving former & then-current Delta employees based at ATL. Airport's improvements supersede recommendations by the Aviation Security Advisory Committee, which reviewed situation at the direction of Homeland Security
After the operation was exposed, substantial changes followed quickly at ATL, via $12 million of security improvements funded solely by the Atlanta Department of Aviation. A new regimen of full employee screening is one notable component.
Springing to Action
While locally based airline personnel were prime participants in the infamous gunrunning case, ATL itself became the subject of a comprehensive review in January 2015. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson directed the Aviation Security Advisory Committee (ASAC) to conduct the review.
As TSA performed its own insider threat analysis, ASAC convened a working group of industry experts to examine potential vulnerabilities related to the security of sterile areas at U.S. airports. The group also explored other trends to determine if additional risk-based security measures, resource reallocations, new investments or policy changes were needed.
At the same time, ATL pulled out all the stops to reduce vulnerabilities associated with insider threats. In addition to immediately closing physical loopholes, ATL sent General Manager Miguel Southwell to testify on the topic before the House of Representatives' Transportation Security Subcommittee in February.
Under oath, Southwell suggested numerous ways the world's busiest airport could - and would - improve security screening of employees. By the time ASAC submitted its final report in April about improving employee access control at airports nationwide, many of the fixes Southwell chronicled had already been implemented at ATL.
Bullseye on Security
Richard Duncan, the airport's assistant general manager of Public Safety and Security, directed many of the changes. "From that time forward, we have been working to put together inspection stations and screening activities to enhance our security," Duncan reports.
ATL addressed employee access issues beyond those associated with smuggling contraband, and it completed corrective measures ahead of schedule, he notes: "We had a target of completing the process by the end of this year, but we put everything in place by August."
The airport, for instance, preemptively instituted ASAC recommendations to increase random and unpredictable physical inspections of employees working in or accessing secured areas of airports. Adding its own twist to the formula, ATL is also enhancing employee vetting and pre-screening procedures by working with the FBI to implement real-time criminal history background checks.
Duncan notes that ATL has effectively revamped previous protocols that are still commonplace at most U.S. airports - particularly credentialing processes and physical access. At ATL, for instance, employees with valid security credentials could use more than 70 access points throughout the large airport - turnstiles, door, elevators, etc. In addition to drastically reducing its access points from 70 to 10, ATL also reduced the number of employees who receive credentials to use them.
"We did an internal audit of all of the airport employees, stakeholder employees and contractors to see exactly which employee groups should have access to those access portals," Duncan explains. "Those deemed ineligible for full access at these locations are now directed to the employee screening area."
The addition of inspection and screening at employee parking lots and within the terminal building is another major initiative ATL added. "The certainty of inspection or screening is the difference between what it was in December and what it is today," Duncan advises.
Full Employee Screening
Superseding ASAC recommendations, ATL held the soft opening of three employee security checkpoints on Aug. 31. In doing so, it joined Miami International and Orlando International as the only U.S. airports screening all employees.
Although the ASAC report concluded that TSA physically screening 100% of airport employees would be an ineffective outlay of significant resources with limited security value, ATL opted to independently initiate full employee screening at its own expense.
The airport's new employee checkpoints largely resemble the neighboring passenger checkpoints, as they both use metal detectors, X-rays and explosive trace detection equipment. Healthcare Security Services provides 24/7 oversight of the new employee screening lanes, per its contract with the city of Atlanta. Currently, up to 2,500 workers are screened at the new checkpoints daily, Duncan reports.
"A benefit of having a screening checkpoint, versus a physical inspection, is that inspectors are not touching the employees nor the employees' belongings," notes Duncan. "We are basically allowing a more humane treatment to the employees by allowing them to go through a screening checkpoint as opposed to physically checking their belongings and their persons."
The method is also inherently more expedient. "Checkpoint screening will save time and save money by continuing to allow employees to get to work as quickly as possible," he explains. "Our integral goal is to process employees in less than five minutes, and I think we have been fairly on target with that since we launched."
Beyond adding new infrastructure and refining policies, the city of Atlanta has also worked with hub carriers to boost offsite security that addresses the bulk of employees at the airport. Delta has been inspecting airfield-bound employees since the firearms issue was discovered, and the carrier plans to implement additional measures before the end of the year.
At the same time, the airport launched initiatives to leverage intelligence from within the aviation community to identify potential threats and enhance security procedures. The new efforts are designed to make it more difficult for those with harmful or criminal intentions to gain access to U.S. airports.
Word to the Wise
Given the security breaches that have occurred at other airports before and after the gun-smuggling ring at ATL was exposed, employee screening and insider threats are likely topics that are here to stay. In that spirit, Duncan offers the following advice: "Airports must work with the TSA, the airlines and other tenants and develop a plan that best meets their operational requirements. That is what we did. We worked with our airlines, we worked with TSA and our other stakeholders to develop a plan that would not interfere with their operational requirements, but enhance our security."
While TSA is not involved with ATL's employee screening program, the agency seems content with how the new protocols are working within the airport's overall TSA-approved security plan. TSA Spokesman Mark Howell notes that the agency will continue to work with ATL to ensure that its employee screening program is as effective as possible.