Recent security incidents place renewed emphasis on airport employee screening

Feb. 17, 2015
MIA security chief Lauren Stover discusses the proactive approach they've taken and how other airports can follow suit

The discovery late last year of a gun smuggling ring from Atlanta to New York that was allegedly carried out by an airline baggage handler at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has placed increased scrutiny on the way airports screen workers. Last month, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) called for the Transportation Security Administration to implement measures that would require airports nationwide to screen all airline and airport employees prior to entering secured areas.

“When guns, drugs, and even explosives are as easy to carry on board a plane as a neck pillow, then we have to seriously - and immediately - overhaul our airport security practices,” Schumer said in a statement. “In this day and age of terrorism, rampant drug dealing and gun smuggling, we just can't be too careful. The vast majority of airline employees are good, hard-working people, however, in order to limit the chance of weapons and other dangerous contraband from making it into our overhead compartments, all airline employees should pass through metal detectors."

Earlier this month, the House Subcommittee on Transportation Security held a hearing to discuss the issue of access control measures at U.S. airports.

“The TSA spends billions of dollars every year to ensure every passenger is screened before boarding a commercial flight. That’s an important responsibility; however, we must ask ourselves, ‘what good is all of this screening at the front door if we’re not paying enough attention at the back door?’” Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), said in his opening statement at the hearing. “The answer is common sense.”

In written testimony to the House subcommittee, Miguel Southwell, aviation general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, said that while this and other recent indents at the airport are concerning, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to security that can be applied to all airports across the board.

“As you know, every airport is different. Each is unique in its configuration, and each is unique in terms of its risk profile,” wrote Southwell. “As with every airport in the country, we work tirelessly with our security partners and operate under a TSA-approved security plan. This multi-layered system of security measures is based upon the determined risk at a particular airport. However, we recognize that air transportation is a system, and any system is only as strong as its weakest link. Approximately 64 million of the more than 94 million passengers who pass through Atlanta annually are connecting from another airport. Therefore, we believe that some minimum standard of employee screening or inspection should be adopted across the entire system and should incorporate the input of all U.S. airports.”

The fact is, however, that the vast majority of airports do not have uniform standards when it comes to the screening of airport employees. A recent CNN investigation found that only two airports – Miami International Airport (MIA) and Orlando International Airport (OIA) – require employees with secure access to pass through metal detectors.

According to Lauren Stover, assistant aviation director for public safety and security at MIA, Miami initially began enhanced screening of all airport workers in 1999 following the discovery of a drug smuggling operation.

“We have a layered security approach as should every airport. All workers who work in the secured areas of the airport (on the ramp) are required to undergo physical screening in one of four employee screening checkpoints,” explained Stover. “They go through a walkthrough metal detector and a baggage X-ray, so their items are placed on the baggage belt and are screened by private guards that the airport hires.”

Stover said that they began with 32 access portals for employees at the airport, but have since reduced that number to just four. Additionally, airport workers are also required to take part in mandatory behavior detection classes as part of their training when they are hired.   

“We believe that behavior detection is a critical component of our security program. Technology comes and goes, but behavior detection is here to stay,” added Stover. “The ability for humans to detect anomalies in other humans is something that will never grow obsolete and it is an important methodology that we provide to airport workers as an added tool in our toolbox. Of the 34,000 employees that are credentialed to work here, 33,000 have access to restricted areas and we want to ensure that we are doing what we can to mitigate any potential threats.”

Stover emphasized that they do not view themselves as being better than other airports that haven’t implemented similar measures at their facilities, but she said that they have “paid the price” in the past for not having them. By and large, Stover said airports do not want to spend the money required to institute 100 percent physical screening of all workers not only because it is not a silver bullet that will alleviate all security concerns, but also due to the fact that the government does not want to pitch in and help with the tab.

“Until (airports and the government) come to a happy medium, that gap is here stay. Airports need to do a cost versus consequence analysis and for us, the costs are well worth it,” she said. “It’s not a single solution and we don’t screen to the standards that the federal government screens passengers. We are looking more for metallic objects, weapons and prohibited items. But the screening does work. We’ve intercepted guns, knives, contraband, and large sums of money. We conduct random background checks each month as well and this is something else that is above and beyond the federal government mandates.”

Airport employees at MIA are also required to challenge anyone in a secured area without the proper credentials. Oftentimes, Stover said that this can be a test to determine if employees are properly challenging persons without a credential. The consequence for not doing so could result in that employee’s ID being confiscated.

For her colleagues at other airports around the nation, Stover said that they have to understand what their threats and vulnerabilities are and then work to address them in a way that best addresses their risk profile.

“Then they have to decide what the consequences for lack of action are – whether that will be catastrophic or minimal. I would say that airports can take a look at their domain, what their threats are and then put together countermeasures to mitigate those threats,” she said. “For employee screening, they could start to incrementally reduce the access points. That would be a start for airports.”           

About the Author

Joel Griffin | Editor-in-Chief,

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of, a business-to-business news website published by Endeavor Business Media that covers all aspects of the physical security industry. Joel has covered the security industry since May 2008 when he first joined the site as assistant editor. Prior to SecurityInfoWatch, Joel worked as a staff reporter for two years at the Newton Citizen, a daily newspaper located in the suburban Atlanta city of Covington, Ga.