Ask the pilot

Airport security's dirty little secret: While pilots are searched, thousands of baggage loaders and cleaners waltz right through.

Published June 10, 2005 6:30PM (EDT)

An airline captain, let's call him Steve, arrives at a large U.S. airport to begin a three-day assignment. He's dressed in full crewmember ensemble, and he totes the ubiquitous black roll-aboard and flight case. Clipped to Steve's pocket is a plastic case containing his FAA airman licenses, medical certificate, company I.D. and tarmac access badge.

Steve reaches the mouth of concourse C, where his credentials are eyed by a TSA employee who allows him to pass. Allows him to pass, that is, 20 additional feet to the metal detector and X-ray machine. There, before proceeding to the gate where his jetliner and passengers await, Steve and his belongings undergo the exact same scrutiny that befalls the 1.5 million or so paying passengers who move daily through the nation's terminals. His pockets are emptied, his laptop removed, his luggage scanned for contraband. A TSA screener asks Steve to open his overnight bag for closer inspection.

Simultaneously, in a nondescript annex at the far side of the terminal, a young worker, whom we'll refer to as Hector, is punching in for the 4 p.m. to midnight shift. In a small backpack he carries a radio, a change of clothes and a bagged meal from home. After a shuttle ride from the parking lot, Hector reaches the unguarded door. He types in a PIN code and slides a magnetic badge through a slot. The door buzzes, opens and allows Hector to step inside.

Hector is 24, an American by way of Guatemala, and is employed by a firm that supplies cabin-cleaning services to the airlines. Several large carriers contract with Hector's company, and his first assignment this afternoon will be primping and straightening the economy section of a just-landed Air France 777, later destined for Paris with 270 people on board. Hector hates working these long-haul turnarounds, as the seats and aisles are especially clogged with rubbish.

Once in the building he undergoes no further security checks. It's a short walk to the tarmac, where a van carries Hector and his colleagues to planes that await cleaning.

Perhaps it surprises you to learn that flight crewmembers -- pilots and flight attendants -- are among the few groups of airport workers subject to concourse screening, while tens of thousands of personnel like Hector -- caterers, cleaners, mechanics, gate agents and baggage loaders -- whose duties require unfettered access to jetliners, are able to bypass this checkpoint entirely. Most of these people are themselves airline employees, though a high percentage are contract staff belonging to outside companies. While Steve sits in the cockpit running through the preliminary checklists, everything from his flashlight batteries to his underwear having been given the once-over by a guard, Hector is out back, rummaging through the plane's unminded spaces, free and clear.

Or perhaps, considering how much security-related buffoonery we've endured since the terror strikes of 2001, you're not surprised at all. But no matter how cynical one's take on our post-attacks windmill chasing, these double-standard concourse procedures are arguably the most glaring example of foolishness to date -- so brazenly contradictory as to be almost unbelievable.

The requirement that pilots and flight attendants undergo checkpoint screening was imposed by the FAA after the crash of a Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) flight in 1987. A recently fired ground worker, David Burke, used his credentials, which the airline had failed to recover, to carry a concealed handgun onto flight 1771 from Los Angeles to San Francisco. En route, he shot both pilots and nosed the airplane into the ground near Harmony, Calif., killing all 44 on board.

The FAA's response was not to implement screening for ground workers, but for pilots and flight attendants instead. As a public relations gimmick, passengers now saw crews having to wait in the same annoying security queues as everybody else. It looked like a tighter system, when in reality it did nothing to preclude another David Burke.

Change, however, may be coming. On May 26, Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat representing New York's Westchester and Rockland counties, reintroduced legislation to eliminate the present loophole. Her bill, the aptly titled Guaranteeing Airport Physical Screening Standards (GAPSS) Act of 2005, would mandate physical inspection for all workers with access to aircraft or sensitive areas. The legislation was previously introduced at the end of last year -- too late for action but in time to raise awareness of the issue. "Until the current inconsistencies are addressed," Lowey says, "the system cannot work."

As it stands, all workers with airside privileges, whether pilots, baggage loaders or lavatory scrubbers, are subject to fingerprinting, a 10-year criminal background investigation, and cross-checking against terror watch lists. Is this enough? In 2003 a narcotics smuggling ring organized among airport employees was broken up at New York's JFK International. Back in 2002, when the government launched "Operation Tarmac," more than 800 ground staff were netted for background check discrepancies, including numerous failures to report past felonies.

While it's tempting to say the workforce has been adequately purged, there remains precedent of enough illegal activity to warrant extra vigilance. And after all, the likelihood that someone will carry a bomb to work in a lunch pail, whether an al-Qaida operative or a plotter like Timothy McVeigh, may not be relevant to what's known of his or her past.

"These existing checks are inadequate," Lowey maintains. "Already we've seen the screening gap exploited for criminal purposes, and why leave open the door to something far worse?"

Somewhat perplexing has been a federal reluctance to embrace what strikes most people as a commonsense measure. A similar proposal was rejected in 2002 by TSA, ostensibly over cost concerns, though according to Lowey's office no estimate was ever released. Only last year, the Government Accountability Office recommended stricter screening for the estimated 1 million employees currently able to bypass the explosive-sniffing, X-raying, and patting-downs affecting the rest of us. The recommendation has gone ignored. In light of the government's relentless fixation with security, from our color-coded alert levels to the invocation of terrorism at every turn, how could such an idea not be popular?

As some see it, tolerance for the status quo is yet more evidence of a government with a penchant for playing it both ways -- eager to bolster the perception of tight security in lieu of ensuring the real thing.

"I don't know why we've had so much resistance to this," Lowey says. "TSA doesn't say much, but my impression is that they feel the bill might prove too inconvenient for airports."

My own queries to TSA were unsuccessful, so it's hard to say, but the agency seems to believe that airports themselves, rather than any overarching government regulation, are best able to protect themselves. Certain airports have, on their own initiative, enacted requirements for equal screening of all on-site staff.

This touching bit of local regulatory leeway seems a bit weird coming from a federal administration so adherent to draconian micromanagement that it refuses to let the public bring scissors onto airplanes. And the notion that TSA is worried about convenience at airports is, to many, laughable on the face of it.

At the same time, however, TSA's attitude is oddly refreshing. The purpose of highlighting this loophole should not be to scare or sensationalize. Overall, the system does work and the skies are astonishingly safe. Perhaps it would be overly taxing for airports, or else completely impractical, to add another million daily screenings into the mix. And do we now demand that an airline mechanic hand over his screwdriver before proceeding to repair a cockpit gauge?

If nothing else, there's an opportunity here to finally get past our obsession with metal objects -- that nagging, self-defeating vestige of Sept. 11. We have, I think, evolved to a higher state of awareness, and good luck to any evildoer stupid enough to put faith in the modus operandi, successful as it was in a fleeting moment of opportunity, of Mohammed Atta and his 18 helpers. Yet why do our security methods cling to this unworkable terrorist template?

Meanwhile, for crewmembers, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the world's largest pilots union, is a leading proponent of an idea known as the Transportation Workers' Identity Card (TWIC). A universal TWIC, embedded with a chip containing biometric data and other information, would permit crews to bypass much or most of the current metal-detector rigmarole. "The process is backward," says Dennis Dolan, an ALPA vice president. "Pilots, who have been background-checked and scrutinized to a much higher standard than ground staff, are still carefully screened while other workers are not. The scanning of bags is one thing, as theoretically crew luggage could be subject to tampering, but the TWIC card should eliminate the demeaning pat-downs and wanding that now take place."

ALPA began calling for a universal I.D. card not long after the PSA incident 18 years ago. A few keystrokes into the database back at corporate headquarters, and David Burke might have been prevented from ever boarding the doomed flight. The TWIC is the same concept, but unlike a magnetic or optical stripe, the microchip allows much more information to be stored.

I'm not a fan of ever-increasing levels of technology as an antidote to terrorism, which has always been a hands-dirty, low-tech theater, but anything that keeps on-duty crews from needing to take off their shoes off and having their crotches grabbed can't be all bad.

So, in the end, we find something of a conflict. There are those who view the situation as a ringing call to arms, with any number of doomsday scenarios at their disposal: cabin cleaners with unbeknownst al-Qaida connections, caterers sneaking in explosives with their sandwiches and soda cans, baggage handlers smuggling bombs into the belly.

On the other hand, those more pragmatic and less emotionally coiled on matters of security might contend the answer isn't to aim for some impossible zero tolerance, but to accept a level of risk while ratcheting down the overzealous screening of pilots and flight attendants. "Why are we wasting precious resources on people we have virtually assured ourselves are not threats?" asks Dolan. "At some point we have to admit we'll never have perfect security and must get the best bang for the buck where we perceive the highest threat."

The most effective solution will, as these things go, be somewhere in between. In the meantime, there's a cautionary element to reckon with for sure, but at heart this is an issue of consistency more than a harbinger of catastrophe. If we're going to screen at all -- and virtually every one of us will acquiesce that some level of scrutiny needs to be there -- let's do so fairly and sensibly.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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