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Criminal gangs may be exploiting airport security gaps: Report

  • Airport staff accessing secure areas may be targets for criminal recruitment
  • Experts cite past workers' arrests as examples of potential criminal action
  • TSA has implemented a plan to enhance security screening of airport workers

DALLAS (NewsNation) — Airports are consistently addressing ongoing security issues, including the threat of criminal gangs potentially recruiting airport workers as inside operatives.

A Wall Street Journal report highlights concerns that the urgency to increase staffing could make airports a target for malicious employees, as they’re attractive recruits for criminal organizations.

The aviation industry has grappled with hiring shortages and resorted to mass hiring following pandemic-era travel restrictions. Experts believe this has given criminal entities the chance to plant or recruit new accomplices.

For example, in 2018, several airline workers at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport were arrested for attempting to smuggle drugs onto a plane.

In July, a video allegedly captured Transportation Security Administration workers at Miami International Airport stealing from passenger bags during security scanning. TSA confirms that these officers have been removed from their positions.

Industry experts argue this incident is an example of potential criminal activity that could take place among airport workers.

“Whether you work in a department store, whether you work in an airport, there’s still going to be that petty theft that goes on,” said Jeff Price, professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver, Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science. “The thing that we get more focused on is the individuals or groups that get employed by an airport entity, where they do have access to aircraft, and their ability to smuggle guns and continues to remain ahead of emerging threats and has been working to strengthen defenses against threats posed by insiders.”

The Transportation Security Administration emphasizes that it’s monitored these issues for a while and constantly take measures to ensure the safety of passengers and workers.

Aviation workers are subject to ongoing background checks and other physical security efforts that are seen and unseen; however, TSA has determined that additional mitigation steps are necessary. Following continuous discussion with transportation industry stakeholders, TSA issued a national amendment requiring certain airport operators to conduct enhanced aviation worker screening. “These new requirements will complement the work done by TSA to screen individuals with access to secured and sterile areas of airports across the country. TSA continues to work closely with stakeholders to support implementation of this important security policy through a flexible, performance-based, outcome-focused approach,” the agency said in a statement.

In 2020, TSA rolled out a strategic plan to try to further address the issue. It also started enhanced security screenings, similar to what passengers go through, for certain airport workers.

“What I can tell you anecdotally is from talking to various aviation security professionals and individuals within the system across the country, is we are starting to see an uptick in both not only recruitment but of individuals that work in airports,” Price said. “But also people who are already in a gang or involved in criminal activity, trying to get employment at an airport, as long as they’ve got a clean background and haven’t gotten into that much trouble yet.”

Hiring is a rigorous process and workers undergo thorough background checks.

“While there might be a hiring shortage, it’s hard to make that one-for-one equation or that one-for-one comparison to say there’s a hiring shortage. Therefore, we’re rushing people through a process because that process takes a certain period of time and it really cannot be accelerated at the airport level,” Price said.

TSA screens more than two million passengers per day.

There are more than 50,000 TSA officers and about 1.8 million airport workers across the United States. Airports also have municipal police officers, and some also have gang units that monitor suspicious activity.


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