Thursday, March 27, 2008
BY RON MARSICO
Saying there is "a vulnerable hole in our security," U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez called upon federal authorities yesterday to require that all airport employees be screened more thoroughly for bombs and other weapons before being allowed access to airplane cargo holds and other secure areas.
In letters to the heads of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, Menendez (D-N.J.) said recent incidents at Newark Liberty International Airport "raise serious questions about the adequacy of our nation's airline employee screening procedures."
The Star-Ledger has reported that airline employees at Newark Liberty International Airport have been implicated in drug smuggling and theft cases, and detailed how workers' bags are given only cursory checks at one Terminal C access point before the employees are waved into secure areas.
"The fact that pilots and flight attendants undergo security every time they fly, but those who handle cargo, luggage and have access to planes on the tarmac face little or no screening seems to simply defy common sense," Menendez wrote. "...At too many of our nation's airports, far too little screening is taking place. This leaves a vulnerable hole in our security that we cannot afford."
Security experts and some public officials have demanded that airport workers undergo the same type of security screenings as passengers. Those checks include walking through metal detectors and putting carry-on bags through X-ray machines. Checked luggage goes through bomb-detection machines.
TSA officials have said passenger lines would increase if all workers had to pass through regular security checkpoints.
But Menendez stopped short of calling for employees to undergo checks at passenger checkpoints. An aide said the senator first wants to get a response and "assess all the information before coming to a conclusion like that."
At Newark Liberty, most workers are only required to swipe an employee card and enter a personal identification number at special access points. Workers must show the card to a security guard and open their bags for inspection before being allowed into airplane cargo holds or other secure areas.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Newark Liberty, uses FJC Security Systems Inc., a private firm, to supply guards at special employee access points. The procedures have been approved by the TSA.
But an examination by The Star-Ledger at a Terminal C access point that is in public view found that FJC guards often give employees' bags just a cursory look. A cell-phone video of the operation provided by an airport worker was posted on the newspaper's website, www.nj.com.
Christopher White, a TSA spokesman, said the agency received the Menendez letter and would respond directly to him.
"TSA is collaborating with airport and airline partners to study different measures to increase security as it relates to employees," White said in an e-mail response to questions about the letter.
White said those federal initiatives -- part of a 90-day pilot program that starts in May at seven airports -- include checking employees' fingerprints or iris scans before they are allowed access to secure areas and screening all employees at passenger checkpoints. Newark Liberty is not part of the pilot program.
"We look forward to the completion of this congressionally mandated study and considering additional measures to increase security," White wrote. "Today all employees given unescorted access to secure areas are thoroughly vetted, subjected to random screening anytime, anywhere and checked daily against terror watch lists."
Menendez's letter comes in the wake of two incidents that raise questions about security and workers at Newark Liberty.
On Monday, federal authorities said two Continental Airlines employees were charged with conspiring to smuggle heroin off planes that landed at Newark from South America. In a separate case last week, authorities said baggage handlers were recruited to steal from aircraft cargo holds nearly $2 million worth of U.S. Treasury checks, which later were counterfeited by a ring.
Phone and e-mail messages for comment left with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's press office were not returned.