When Alaska Air Group ground handler Richard Russell commandeered a company Q400 turboprop, the incident raised flags throughout the industry. Calls for tighter ramp security and mental health screening are rising up in the press, while airline management struggles with the prospect of balancing access and operating efficiency with security against an episode that no one had anticipated.
Russell, who had worked for Alaska Air for since 2015, was fully credentialed to have access to aircraft and served on a tow team at Seattle’s Seatac Airport. He was not on duty when he used a tug to back the Q400 onto the ramp of a maintenance area, started its engines and taxied to Runway 16C for takeoff. Russell did not have a pilot’s license.
At a press conference the morning after the incident, Alaska Air Group CEO Brad Tilden said, “Yesterday’s events will push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can help prevent it from ever happening again, at our airline or any other.”
But the challenge airlines face is daunting. Properly trained and credentialed employees need access to aircraft to do their jobs. Some have suggested, however, that aircraft cockpit doors remain locked when the aircraft is not scheduled to fly, as was the case with the Q400 commandeered by Russell. How he learned to start the engines and take off remains unclear.
The other side of the issue is suggesting more robust mental health screening for airline employees with airside credentials. Ben Vogel, editor of Jane’s Airport Review, points to some of the challenges with this approach: “Widespread psychological assessments would have major financial and operational consequences for airline, and in itself, the process could be counter-productive by increasing stress on the personnel involved.”
And even the best mental health screening cannot always predict certain dissociative episodes that can impel a person to behave in completely unpredictable ways. As Vogel concludes: “Unpalatable as it seems, the Q400 theft and pilot suicide may prove to have been such a rare event that even a combination of tighter background checks and enhanced mental health screening would not have prevented it.”