Almost any time security is breached at a U.S. airport, travelers wonder how it can happen in a post-9/11 world, after the government has spent billions of dollars to keep passengers safe.
But whether it’s a terminal shooting, or a stolen aircraft like the one that caused 90 minutes of panic Friday night near Seattle, aviation insiders are rarely surprised but not because airports are dangerous. It’s because no public space can be 100 percent secure from someone who wants to inflict harm on themselves or others.
Undoubtedly, Friday’s news from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was unusual. Officials said a 29-year-old employee of Horizon Air, an Alaska Air Group subsidiary, jumped into the cockpit of a Horizon Bombardier Q400 turboprop parked in a maintenance area before taxiing it to an active runway and taking off without clearance at 7:32 p.m.
The man, who did not have a pilot’s license, flew around the Seattle area for a little more than an hour, officials said, trailed by two F-15 fighter jets, while speaking to air traffic controllers on the radio. The controllers calmly tried to coax him into landing, but he crashed the aircraft instead, likely on purpose, as he referenced mental health issues in radio transmissions. Officials said fighter jets did not shoot him down.
It happened at an airport, Alaska Air’s biggest hub, so the public is enthralled. But this is, essentially, a workplace suicide by an disturbed employee who used his access to facilitate a spectacular ending. It is not that different from a disgruntled employee who shoots his coworkers or a police officer who drives his cruiser off a cliff.
The incident does raise the question of whether airports and airlines still have gaps in safety protocols that can be addressed. After all, this airline employee was able to take off on a busy summer Friday night without any tower clearance at an airport that served 47 million passengers in 2017.
But while the event was scary and sad, it was not necessarily preventable. This was an employee who had passed a background check and was supposed to be working with aircraft as a ground service agent.
“There may be no foolproof way to totally prevent qualified, otherwise authorized people from using their job’s tools to harm themselves or others,” Phil Derner Jr., who worked as a flight dispatcher for a major airline, said on Twitter.
Neither Seattle airport nor airline officials wanted to speculate Saturday, but it’s possible airlines and airports will develop new rules designed to make sure a similar incident does not happen. Perhaps airlines will ensure two employees, not one, work on an airplane at all times. Or maybe they will make it tougher for employees move aircraft on the ground.
But it’s important to note airports are essentially big cities with tens of thousands of employees working at them. Some of those workers have access to dangerous items that could, in the wrong hands, harm an aircraft. Many employees do not go through security when they get to work, making it conceivable they could bring a gun or other prohibited item on a flight.
Yet very little goes wrong, because the vast majority of airport employees conduct themselves with integrity. Airlines trust them to do their jobs. “Ground employees are professionals and need not be babied,” Derner said.
Employee Was Authorized to Be Near Plane
Had this been a non-airline employee who hopped a fence and started the aircraft, this would have been more concerning.
But this worker was authorized to be where he was, officials said Saturday. And while ground services employees often stay near gate areas, loading and unloading bags, this worker was part of a team that towed aircraft from one area to another, so other workers may not have been alarmed when he moved the turboprop from the maintenance area. (The employee did not have a pilots license, officials said, so investigators will seek to understand how he was able to fly what pilots have said is a challenging aircraft.)
Workers on airport ramps generally pass several background checks — both from the government and their employers, Alaska CEO Brad Tilden said Saturday at a news conference.
“It’s natural to ask, what procedures are there?” he said. “But we’ve got a fleet of airplanes, and airplanes are here overnight. We’re accessing aircraft routinely overnight to get logbooks, to clean the airplanes, to do maintenance work on the airplanes. The system that works is we secure the employees that are there.”
Tilden said it’s possible Alaska will change its procedures, but he said they generally work well. It is extremely rare for an airline employee to steal an aircraft.
“This is aviation in America,” he said. “The doors to the airplanes are not keyed like a car. There is not an ignition key like there would be in a car. The setup in aviation in America is we secure the airfield and then we have the mindset that we have employees that are credentialed and authorized to be there.”
Screening for Suicide
But as other industries have found, it’s difficult to screen for suicidal tendencies. As one government official told Kris Van Cleave of CBS News, “We vet against someone who would hijack a plane for terrorism. This is an Horizon Air employee with a clean background, no known criminal activity, no terror relation, and wanted to commit suicide. TSA isn’t screening for that because you cannot.”
Still, is it possible airlines may try harder in the future to screen for mental health issues. While catastrophic suicides by airline employees are rare, they’re not unprecedented.
Over the past three decades, several aircraft have been brought down by rogue pilots, mostly notably Germanwings 9525 in March 2015. A suicidal first officer locked the plane’s captain from the cockpit and then deliberately crashed the Airbus 320 into the French Alps, killing 150 people.