WASHINGTON, D.C. – The need for even tougher security at the nation’s airports became an issue Tuesday when the head of the FAA appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee.
The top Democrat on the committee, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), pressed the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, Michael Huerta, about funding to help airports screen employees who have access to secure areas.
Nelson’s inquiry comes in the wake of an incident at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in which federal agents arrested a baggage handler last December on charges related to weapons smuggling on passenger flights.
And just yesterday, another incident, this time in Seattle involved a baggage handler taking off in the cargo belly of an airplane, claiming he fell asleep there.
During Tuesday’s hearing of the Commerce Committee, Nelson asked FAA Administrator Huerta if agency funds were available to help airports implement tougher passenger-like screening of employees who have access to sensitive areas and to airplanes.
“That’s certainly a possibility,” Huerta responded. “The screening … is a shared responsibility between the Transportation Security Administration and the local airport authority, and the FAA can support that.”
For example, Huerta said, “airport perimeter fencing is certainly something that we regard as a high priority for airport grants.”
Already, the TSA is reviewing the internal security procedures at the roughly 450 U.S. commercial airports. Only two airports in the nation have voluntarily implemented full, passenger-like screening for employees with access to secure areas.
Within the past month, Nelson visited and reviewed both - Miami International Airport and Orlando International Airport.
The lawmaker believes both airports could serve as a model for others around the country looking to toughen employee screening practices.
Below is the transcript of Nelson’s exchange with Huerta, and the lawmakers’ recent letter to TSA:
Senate Commerce Committee Hearing Transcript
April 14, 2015
Nelson: Last December, the most unbelievable thing was discovered in the Atlanta airport, where for six months an airport employee had been bringing guns into the airport - then going up into the sterile passenger area, rendezvousing with a passenger who had already come through TSA with an empty backpack, giving guns, including a carbine, and this went on for six months until he was finally caught, and the last time in December that he was caught, he had 16 guns in the backpack on the airplane. Now thank goodness he was a criminal instead of a terrorist. Well, it so happens of the 450 airports, there are only two that have solved this problem, and I happened over the recess to visit both. One is Orlando and one is Miami. And what they did was they took all of their hundreds of airport employee access points and boiled it down to a handful and then put up the same kind of screening that we as passengers go through in TSA. But airports, of course, want money to help with that screening, but it’s absolutely necessary for the safety of the traveling public. So what about using FAA airport money to help airports do what Miami and Orlando have already done?
Huerta: That’s certainly a possibility. As you know, the screening and security responsibility is a shared responsibility between the Transportation Security Administration and the local airport authority, and the FAA can support that as you mentioned, Senator, through the Airport Improvement Program. The insulation of airport perimeter fencing is certainly something that we regard as a high priority for airport grants. We’ve provided close to $300 million in AIP grants over the last 10 years – so that’s an average of about $30 million annually – for specific security programs that have been requested by the airports.
Nelson: So you’re saying the money is already there? They just need to apply for it?
Huerta: They can apply for it. We have two sets of AIP funding. There are formula allocations that local airports receive, and then there is a discretionary program and the airport can work in cooperation with the FAA to establish the priority of how AIP funds get spent. And security is certainly something that is an eligible use there.
Nelson: Well, may I suggest for the remaining 448 airports in this country that they need to do that.
Lawmakers’ letter to TSA:
March 17, 2015
Transportation Security Administration
601 12th St. S
Arlington, VA 22202
Dear Mr. Carraway:
I am concerned about a number of recently reported incidents involving the Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) badges used to access secure areas of domestic airports. In December 2014, it was revealed that a Delta ramp agent in Atlanta allegedly used his SIDA badge to bypass Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security and facilitate an interstate gun smuggling operation over a number of months via commercial aircraft. In January 2014, an Atlanta-based Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Aviation Safety Inspector reportedly used his SIDA badge to bypass TSA security checkpoints and transport a firearm in his carry-on luggage. Most recently, a local news investigation found that thousands of SIDA badges at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport were unaccounted for, having apparently been lost or stolen.
In response to these reported incidents and security lapses, I understand that TSA is currently considering or implementing a range of measures, and the Department of Homeland Security has requested that the Aviation Security Advisory Committee conduct a review of issues related to the security of airport sterile areas nationwide. I ask that TSA report to the Committee any new or recent actions taken to address potential vulnerabilities related to the access of an airport’s secure areas or perimeter.
I also ask that TSA provide a full accounting of the number of SIDA badges lost, missing, or otherwise unaccounted for at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, as well as the percentage of SIDA badges unaccounted for in each of the last five years at each airport where TSA conducts or oversees security operations.
John Thune Bill Nelson
Kelly Ayotte Maria Cantwell