In the wake of Friday's security incident, airport and airline officials will meet to discuss whether any policies need to change. One expert says it's possible there won't be many changes to make.
Leaders at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport are preparing to gather Monday morning to discuss what policies could prevent insider security breaches similar to the Friday night heist of a turboprop plane that later crashed.
But the bizarre incident creates a quandary for experts who analyze the security of U.S. airports: Is there anything more that can be done to prevent credentialed workers from taking such an unpredictable action?
Courtney Gregoire, the president of the Port of Seattle Commission, said in an interview Sunday that the port’s director of security will meet with officials from a number of airlines who operate at the airport to discuss Friday’s incident. With an FBI investigation is ongoing into how a Horizon Air employee managed to take the plane, Gregoire said she expects there to be a national examination of airport procedures.
“We can get ahead of this,” Gregoire said.
Gregoire said she did not have any particular policies or procedures in mind that would need changing. But given that the plane was taken by an insider, it may mean tightening policies and procedures even for those who already have security clearances.
Perry Cooper, a port spokesman, noted that the airport began security screenings for employees about a year and a half ago — something that not a lot of other airports have.
Sea-Tac and its airlines require both an employee badge and biometrics, such as a fingerprint reading into a scanner, for people to reach sensitive areas including fuel and baggage areas, said former port Commissioner Gael Tarleton. After 9/11, the main fear in the port world was somebody taking private jets, that don’t have a flight plan, from smaller airports such as Boeing Field.
“We always worried about someone taking an aircraft — but now it’s happened at a major international airport,” said Tarleton, now a state legislator.
In the Friday incident, a rogue ground-crew employee got into a pushback tractor, attached it to the empty aircraft and turned the airplane toward the runways, authorities said. The worker, identified as Richard Russell, then taxied to runway 16C and took off around 7:32 p.m. He crashed about one hour and 10 minutes later in a wooded area of Ketron Island in south Puget Sound.
The FBI said Sunday night that it had recovered the flight-data recorder and components of the cockpit voice recorder from the wreckage, as well as human remains.
Jeff Price, an aviation security consultant based in Colorado, said it’s possible officials will review policies and procedures, and conclude there are few changes to make.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do here that doesn’t significantly impact the operations” of airports, Price said.
Price said he believes airlines need to put more complexity into the process of starting up an aircraft, such as programming the systems to require a code or sequence to start. He said the airlines may also need new rules on the circumstances under which personnel can access aircraft.
On the issue of background checks and mental-health screenings, it’s possible airports could add screenings for ramp workers, Price said, or they could emphasize training for workers to be on the lookout for unusual or concerning behavior.
Glen Winn, another industry security consultant, agreed that while there is a lot left to learn about the incident, it’s possible the end of a review will result in few if any policy changes. John Cox, an aviation safety consultant who previously worked as a pilot, said people need to be patient with the investigation and not overreact to a particularly unusual event.
Price said barring the failures of airport security and airline security, there is always the layer of last resort: the military jets that can scramble to deal with an unauthorized departure.
In Friday’s incident, pilots of two F-15C fighters launched from Portland and flew at supersonic speeds to intercept the stolen plane. They were in radio contact with both air traffic controllers and Russell in the cockpit of the turboprop, a spokesman for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) said Sunday.
“The main effort for everyone involved is to get him to land safely, that’s course of action number one,” NORAD spokesman Capt. Cameron Hillier said. “He decided on course of action number two.”
The F-15Cs are part of Operation Noble Eagle, a post-9/11 program to have military aircraft around North America on constant alert, should they need to intercept another plane.
“Air traffic control was giving the instructions to the turboprop and in the absence of following the instructions, the fighters were on hand to enforce that instruction,” Hillier said, adding that both fighter jets were armed, but did not fire any weapons.
“This particular case is very, very unique so any decision to fire like that would have been very coordinated, through many levels, with officials on the ground,” he said.
In a Saturday news release, NORAD said the fighters were working to redirect the turboprop west, out over the Pacific Ocean, before it crashed on Ketron Island.
That effort would appear to be at odds with the efforts of the air traffic controller, who repeatedly urged Russell to turn back east so they could maintain radio contact with him.
“If you could maybe start a left-hand turn, start turning back around, because if you get too close to the Olympics, you won’t be able to hear us anymore,” the air traffic controller tells Russell.
“Man, have you been to the Olympics, these guys are gorgeous,” Russell says.
“I haven’t done much hiking over there, but if you could, if you could start a left turn and turn back toward the east,” the air traffic controller said. “I know you’re getting a good view there, if you go too much further in that direction I won’t be able to hear you anymore.”
One other aspect of that flight conversation was the controller’s suggestion that Russell land at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The controller had indicated he had spoken to McChord officials about the possibility.
Joe Piek, a JBLM spokesman, said the controller’s comments were nothing more than a suggestion.
“There were actually no preparations made at JBLM for this person having to land,” Piek said. “If that would have happened, they probably would have put him in touch with the tower at McChord field.”
Staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.