AIN Blog: Hyper Focus on New Risk Detracts from Other Risks

 - October 1, 2018, 9:00 AM

I’m sure many of you have watched the videos and heard the air traffic control tower audio of the audacious commandeering of a Horizon Air Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on the evening of August 10.  If you haven’t heard the full audio, you really should listen to it. The Sea-Tac controller handled an extremely dangerous situation in an impressive manner: calm, professional, and probably most important, empathic in a situation that I can’t believe he was ever trained for. Kudos to him.

Some of you who don’t work on an airport might have even been surprised that a ground service agent could gain access to an airline aircraft and take off from a major U.S. airport with the sole purpose, apparently, of one last joyride before committing suicide. For me, and I’m sure others who have worked on aviation security issues, the fact that an airline’s aircraft could be stolen so easily from a major airport was far from surprising. And the fact that the thief was an airline employee was not a big surprise at all. 

Aircraft vulnerabilities to theft, hijacking, and sabotage at airports large and small have been a security concern for years, heightened, of course, after 9/11. But even before 9/11 there were concerns about airline employees and others using aircraft to commit suicide and sometimes to commit murder and suicide. For a while, concerns about the vulnerabilities of airline and GA aircraft topped the lists of many law enforcement agency aviation security concerns. However, in the last few years, as small drones began to proliferate, concerns regarding manned aircraft vulnerabilities seem to have given way to the fear of drone-caused disasters. 

Drone fear began to dominate the media headlines, exacerbated by the FAA’s publication of unvetted drone sighting reports, which have been debunked most recently by a U.S. Government Accountability Report. According to the GAO report: “The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) information on the extent of unsafe use of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in the National Airspace System is limited. Although FAA collects data on several types of safety events involving small UAS, the accuracy and completeness of the data are questionable. For example, since 2014, pilots and others have reported to FAA over 6,000 sightings of UAS, often flying near manned aircraft or airports, but FAA officials told GAO that FAA cannot verify that small UAS were involved in most of the sightings. Officials explained that small UAS are often difficult for pilots to identify definitively and typically are not picked up by radar. Such data limitations impede the agency's ability to effectively assess the safety of small UAS operations.”

Law enforcement agencies and Congress also began—what appeared to me at least—to be a disproportionate focus on the terrorist potential of drones to the exclusion or minimization of the threat of manned aircraft. While all this attention has been focused on small drones, efforts to improve the security of air operations areas have seemingly fallen by the wayside. The same for efforts to recognize at-risk employees with access to aircraft.  So, while it’s clear from terrorists’ use of drones in the Middle East and the recent attempted assassination-by-drone in Venezuela (AIN, September, page 1) that drones can be used for nefarious purposes, the almost single-minded focus on drones is unfortunate.

Old Concerns Remain

The deadly combination of suicidal/homicidal airline employees and their easy access to aircraft first hit home for me in December 1987 when Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 1771 was hijacked by an airline cleaner who had been recently fired. The worker knew that the manager who fired him regularly commuted on a specific flight from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Using his USAir credentials—which he had not yet surrendered—he was able to bypass the magnetometer at security and board the flight with a 44-caliber pistol intent on murdering his former manager and, in the process, murdering the plane's full load of passengers and crew. 

According to the NTSB accident report, the pilot reported to air traffic control that he had an emergency and that gunshots had been fired in the cabin. Shortly thereafter, ATC observed the aircraft in a rapid descent from which it did not recover. The cockpit voice recorder recovered from the wreckage “revealed the sounds of a scuffle and several shots that were apparently fired in or near the cockpit. The pistol was found in the wreckage with six expended rounds.” At the time, FAA was responsible for airline security and its rules allowed airline employees to bypass security checkpoints. Notes left by the hijacker made his intentions clear.

At the time of the crash, USAir had recently purchased PSA, and I was on a team of USAir employees working to integrate USAir and PSA maintenance workers. For more than a year, I was based in California working on the merger. While all aviation crashes hit those of us in the industry hard, the ones that involve our own airlines hit particularly hard. Sometimes, the crewmembers are our friends, sometimes acquaintances, sometimes just co-workers. I didn’t know anyone killed on the flight, but I worked with many people who did. 

The PSA crash was particularly disturbing because it was “one of us” who had caused the crash. I, and many of my colleagues at the time, discussed how easy it is for airline workers with bad intentions and authorized access to aircraft to hijack an aircraft or commit sabotage. Over the years, some of the holes have been plugged, but many remain glaringly obvious both on major airports and small GA fields. In fact, right after the Sea-Tac incident, a pilot for an engineering firm in Utah stole his company’s Cessna 525 from a small airport outside Salt Lake City and crashed it into his own home in an apparent attempt to kill himself and his wife and her 24-year-old son. The pilot had been arrested hours earlier for assaulting his wife and was released on bail.

While small drones can be a security threat, some of the government and industry attention needs to be focused back on airports and the security gaps there.