TSA Checks Put Anyone in Airport Subject to Access Scrutiny

Random checks from TSA verify security compliance among airport vendors, employees


John Malabad swiped his card and punched in a few numbers yesterday to unlock a door that lets airport employees into a secure area of Port Columbus.

Once through the door, he was confronted by two Transportation Security Administration officers who checked his identification to make sure he was authorized to be inside Concourse B.

"You really can't get in or out of this terminal without an eyeball watching you," said Malabad, who works for the Columbus Regional Airport Authority's airline services.

Most of the attention given to airport security involves passengers on their way to board planes. But airport employees, vendors and contractors who work there also are subject to scrutiny by security officers.

In March, two airline baggage handlers at Orlando International Airport were arrested after allegedly using their airport identification cards to enter restricted areas, bypass screeners and carry a bag containing guns and drugs onto a commercial flight.

"Threats can come from any direction, and you constantly have to be scrutinizing your vulnerabilities," said Tom Rice, federal security director at Port Columbus.

In August, the TSA rolled out a nationwide program of random searches of airport employees and anyone else who has access to areas past the passenger security checkpoints.

Port Columbus has been conducting such searches since October. They can happen anywhere on the airport grounds.

"It is almost like a roving security checkpoint," said Scott Lorenzo, assistant federal security director at Port Columbus.

Those who have access to boarding gates, baggage areas, aircraft, the airfield or other secure areas must undergo an FBI criminal background check. They can lose that clearance if they have criminal records for offenses such as forgery, illegal possession of weapons or explosives and violent crimes involving bodily harm, arson or treason.

"So whether you are with the TSA, work at a concession or a contractor, you have to have clearance," said Lara Uselding, a TSA spokeswoman.

A card swipe in a secure door records who swiped the card and when.

"We know from history and the data collected by the airport the number of people who use a door on a daily basis," Rice said.

Employees, vendors and contractors face many of the same restrictions that passengers face.

Since March, TSA officers have recovered 54 lighters and 17 knives from employees and other nonpassengers. In three instances, people were cited for the violations, facing fines of $1,000 to $3,000.

Unlike passengers, employees can bring liquids in any size container into secure areas. Passengers can do so only if the liquid is in travel-size containers and properly packaged.

"The public coming through the checkpoints doesn't have to have the FBI background check, so there is a difference," Rice said.