Airport Workers Raise Concerns About Employee Access, Background Checks

Enhanced screening of the nation’s airport employees could be recommended by the TSA as early as next month

Enhanced screening of the nation’s airport employees, including workers in Chicago, could be recommended by the Transportation Security Administration as early as next month as U.S. lawmakers seek a security solution after a series of threats and breaches at airports nationwide.

The Chicago Department of Aviation said it uses a variety of security measures to protect passengers and airport workers, but NBC 5 Investigates has learned there may only be random TSA screening of some airport workers, such as those who work on airport grounds but not inside a terminal. That’s according to the TSA, which said its officers and inspectors are deployed on a random and unpredictable basis to screen airport and airline workers as they enter for work within the secure and sterile areas.

A Chicago airline catering employee who asked not to be identified said that existing system raises concerns.

"Sometimes they look in your car. Sometimes they check your trunk. But that doesn’t always happen," the worker told NBC 5 Investigates.

Lawmakers are now asking questions about those scenarios.

"What good is all the screening at the front door if they are not paying attention enough at the back door?" Rep. John Katko (R-New York) asked during a Feb. 3 congressional subcommittee hearing on airport security.

Lawmakers point to the December 2014 arrest of baggage handler Eugene Harvey in Atlanta as an example of an employee security breach. According to court documents, Harvey used his Security Identification Display Area (SIDA) badge and unique personal identification number to access secure areas of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport over the course of a year to smuggle guns to another individual inside the airport.

Harvey was indicted and pleaded not guilty.

The TSA is responsible for approving security plans at airports and inspecting for compliance. The inspections include credentialing, perimeter security and testing of access control systems and processes at airports.

But the federal agency is now examining its employee screening methods and is expected to release its findings soon.

"TSA is conducting an insider threat analysis to identity potential indicators of criminality or threats to aviation that could provide insight into new training, operations, or methods of screening and vetting employees," said Mark Hatfield, the TSA's acting deputy administrator

Hospitality employee organization Unite Here polled its members about security at on-site and off-site airport kitchens. According to its report, United Here members said they were concerned about whether all workers must pass the same background checks. They also raised questions about unsecured catering trucks that have access to planes.

"Our members are concerned about it. We want the traveling public to be safe. We want our members to be safe," said Unite Here spokesperson Meghan Cohorst.

The International Flight Services Association said employees may not see all the security measures in place to protect them.

"Safety and security are among our industry’s highest priorities which we share with the TSA and other agencies that play a role in this vital effort," IFSA spokesperson Lauren Godinez said via email.

Aviation security expert Trenton Higareda said employees who raise concerns will help the overall security process.

"Any employee who sees anything unsafe or not secure in an airport absolutely needs to report it immediately, so these kinds of things coming to light is actually a good thing," Higareda said.

Currently, Miami International Airport is one of the only airports in the country that performs security checks on all of its employees.

There was no word if Chicago planned to make changes to employee screening at its airports.

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