What are the lessons from the stolen plane fiasco?

What we can learn from the Horizon Air plane theft and crash

Horizon Air Q400 Copyright © 2013 InSapphoWeTrustEarlier this month, America experienced the first stolen plane fiasco in recent memory. Richard Russell stole an empty, 76-seat Horizon Air Q400, twin-engine turboprop from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac). About an hour later, with two U.S. Air Force F-15s shadowing his every maneuver, fuel running out and an engine failing, Russell, the only casualty, dove the aircraft into a wooded area on sparsely inhabited Ketron Island, about 25 miles from Sea-Tac.

Russell, employed by Horizon Air since 2015, was a baggage handler and ground crew member. He had the security clearances necessary to access the plane he stole. He didn’t have a pilot’s license.

To steal the plane that was parked in an airport maintenance area, Russell drove a towing tractor to the plane, backed the plane out of the maintenance area, drove the tractor aside, entered the cockpit, started the engines and took off.

At a news conference after the theft and fatal crash, Gary Beck, president and CEO of Horizon Air, explained that ground crew, all subject to criminal and other background checks, have unfettered access to the airport’s secure areas, aircraft and their cockpits.

Airport workers are screened to prevent stolen airplane fiascos.

Minimum background check requirements for airline and airport employees are set by the Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In 2015, TSA updated their airline and airport employee background check requirements after a 2014 incident in which a baggage handler at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport was caught smuggling firearms onto commercial airplanes.

Fingerprint-based FBI criminal checks are required for all secure area airport employees. “Real-time” criminal checks are also required. The new rules instituted a policy that requires airport and airline employees to go through standard TSA screenings whenever they travel as passengers.

The FAA requires that employee screenings include identity and employment verification looking back 10 years, with the last five years verified in writing. If specific “triggers” are uncovered, a deeper background check is required. Triggers include significant employment gaps and application inconsistencies, etc. The FAA has a lengthy list of crimes that disqualify applicants.

Should the FAA increase screening of airport personnel to prevent a future stolen airplane fiasco?

Click here to subscribeWill these checks ensure that no terrorist will ever get employment at an airport with access to a secure area? Absolutely not, but they are likely to catch criminals and terrorists who aren’t already dissuaded from applying for airline and airport employment.

Before considering any onerous changes to aviation security due to this incident, officials and legislators should remember that there was only one other aircraft theft/crash incident in the last three decades in which an airline/airport ground employee was involved. That incident was wholly different. In 1987, a fired airline employee committed an armed hijacking of a flight with passengers aboard. There are significant checks preventing such attacks today.

During his apparent suicide flight, Russell described himself as a “broken guy” to air traffic controllers. Considering that, pundits and others are already calling for mental health checks for all airline/airport employees with access to secure airport areas.

Ongoing mental health monitoring is required for pilots, but there are only 125,000 pilots, compared to about 900,000 aviation workers in the U.S., the vast majority of whom have access to at least some “secure” areas of airports.

Despite the Horizon Air incident, it would be hard to justify adding the same requirement for all airline/airport employees. Not only would the cost be substantial compared to the risk, the current number of industrial psychologists in the U.S. couldn’t remotely handle new applicant and semi-annual reevaluations of all airline/airport employees.

Bruce Schneier, one of the nation’s leading security experts has said,

“It’s always possible to increase security by adding more onerous — and expensive — procedures … Realistically, we need to analyze whether the increased security of any measure is worth the cost, in money, time and convenience.”

Considering the risks and other significant problems of mental health monitoring for so many aviation workers in the U.S. versus the increased security that would be gained, I think the aviation industry must look elsewhere to increase ground security meaningfully.

How could Russell, the classic “insider threat,” be stopped? After all, he could have crashed the plane into a highly populated area of Seattle, killing thousands.

Let’s not forget that had that Horizon Air plane been parked at a terminal gate, Russell never would have been able to steal it, let alone fly and crash it. There are a myriad of security procedures and employees to prevent that. Additionally, if passengers were already boarding, they would have acted, too.

Would having a lock on planes help stop another stolen airplane fiasco?

Brad Tilden, the CEO of Alaska Airlines, which owns Horizon Air, said his industry operates on the principle of employee background checks, not locking down airplanes in secure areas. He said, “The doors to the airplanes are not keyed like a car.”

I think that needs to change. The airlines need to lock down their aircraft and cockpits in them. A computerized locking system keyed to employee identification badges is a potential solution. It could be programmed to permit only specifically authorized employees to enter particular aircraft and cockpits on which they are assigned to work at that time.

Whatever changes are instituted by regulators, Congress or the industry itself, knowing that perfect security is an impossible dream, each must ask themselves if their proposed measures are worth their cost in terms of employee privacy and other human costs, etc., as well as money and time.

(Image: Horizon Air Q400 Copyright © 2013 InSapphoWeTrust)