The controller was busy connecting Russell with a professional pilot who might coach him through a landing, first briefing the professional on the situation: “Apparently he’s a grounds crewman with Horizon, I guess,” the controller said. “And he just needs some help controlling his aircraft.” Russell, listening in, retorted: “I mean I don’t need that much help!” But he confessed: “I would like to figure out how to get this cabin . . . make it pressurized or something. So I’m not so lightheaded.”
The professional pilot asked about flight data – altitude and speed. “I’m just kinda hand-flying right now,” Russell responded. The plane appeared to go in and out of radio range and Russell complained about having something in his ear, before he exploded with uncharacteristic menace, demanding a response from the controller: “Dammit, Andrew!” Russell yelled. “People’s lives are at stake here!”
The unauthorized flight of the Horizon craft should not have come as a surprise, least of all to the TSA. In , just before Russell’s exploit, its Aviation Security Advisory Committee produced a report for TSA Administrator David Pekoske titled, “On Insider Threat at Airports.” Pekoske, a Coast Guard vice admiral, was nominated for the post by President Trump in 2017 and still serves as the head of the agency.
S. airports was deemed too variable to ward off terrorist attacks. (Two of the 9/11 hijackers began their exploit passing through lax security at the Portland, Maine, airport, hopping a flight to Boston where the plot began in earnest.)
The federal takeover of airport security in 2002 was intended to standardize practices, leave no soft spots in the system, and prevent a future catastrophic attack. TSA’s policies now define the experience of travel for Americans. Its dictates – to toss out liquids in excess of 3.4 ounces or remove footwear – were imposed suddenly, decisively, and permanently.
But the comings and goings of airport personnel are not standardized by the TSA. To receive a work badge granting access to restricted areas, airport workers must pass periodic criminal background checks, but there’s wide variation in how and even whether employees are screened before work. Every airport has an individual Airport Security Program cleared by the TSA; as Reiter, the director of aviation security for SeaTac, testified to the U.S. House: “If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.”
John Pistole is a former TSA administrator who served during the Obama years. He describes a strange dichotomy: By default, TSA treats a ticketed passenger with high suspicion, as “if they’re a terrorist,” Pistole says. But the agency treats airport personnel as belonging to a “known and trusted group,” he says, not unlike what he once enjoyed as an armed FBI agent, able to skirt security checkpoints to board an airplane.
At most airports, work badges are sufficient to gain entry to the secure areas of the airport; instead of passing through a magnetometer, employees are subject to random spot searches. In recent years, airport workers had exploited this vulnerability. In 2014, five airline personnel were caught smuggling $400,000 through Boston’s airport. That same year, a baggage handler was caught in a scheme smuggling weapons – some of them loaded – including an AK-47, from Atlanta into New York. The scandal briefly made headlines and drew strong words from Washington: “When guns, drugs, and even explosives are as easy to carry on board a plane as a neck pillow, then we have to seriously – and immediately – overhaul our airport security practices,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). In 2015, an FAA employee used his badge to circumvent a security checkpoint and board a flight with an unauthorized gun. In response, TSA increased the frequency of its spot screenings and the FAA suspended the use of its badges to bypass security checkpoints. In 2017, the House took action, unanimously passing the Aviation Employee Screening and Security Enhancement Act, meant to counter such threats, but the bill died in the Mitch McConnell-controlled Senate.