On Friday, August 10, Richard Russell, an airport ground worker who learned how to fly planes from playing video games, took a Bombardier Q400 turboprop plane belonging to his employer, Horizon Air (an Alaska Airlines subsidiary), from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and crashed it on Ketron Island, located southwest of Tacoma, Washington.
Russell had full credentials to be near planes. He worked at Alaska Airlines for three and a half years, with duties that ranged from handling luggage and cleaning out planes to deicing and directing aircraft toward runways. Last Friday, Russell used a vehicle on the tarmac to position the plane to the runway for takeoff. He then entered the plane in uniform and walked into the cockpit, where he activated a series of switches to get the plane into the air. Russell took the Alaska Airlines aircraft on a joyride — doing loop-the-loops and barrel rolls for 75 minutes. Two U.S. Air Force F-15C military fighter jets were deployed and flew beside him for most of his flight. Ultimately, after referring to himself as “a broken guy,” Russell crashed and destroyed the plane. He did not survive.
After the crash, former FBI agent Erroll Southers stated, “The greatest threat we have to aviation is the insider threat… Here we have an employee who was vetted to the level to have access to the aircraft and had a skill set proficient enough to take off that plane.”
AAAPO members have experienced similar scares in some of the nation’s most high-profile airports — JFK, La Guardia, Dallas/Fort Worth, Newark and LAX — and have raised issues relating to insider threats and the lack of attention and oversight of airport employees as well as access to planes and security of airports and their perimeters. In fact, AAAPO has for years brought up the insider threat problems at JFK, where rudimentary turnstiles let airport employees onto the tarmac with direct access to aircraft. Neither the employees, most of whom are wearing street clothes, nor their belongings, including backpacks and bags, are screened.
On July 16, an escapee from a mental hospital swam across Jamaica Bay, jumped a fence at JFK Airport and wandered onto a taxiway. The fence is supposed to be secured via a high-tech electronics system called the Perimeter Intrusion Detection System (PIDS), which detects any attempts to circumvent the perimeter of the airport. It was not working July 16 and has reportedly failed on numerous other occasions, leaving the Port Authority airports of JFK, La Guardia and Newark vulnerable to acts of aggression.
“While Friday’s incident may be surprising to some, it was not at all to me. At LAX, as passenger volume increases, so, too, are the airport’s footprint and revenue fees. But the number of airport police officers deployed daily is decreasing,” said Marshall McClain, president of the Los Angeles Airport Peace Officers Association and co-founder of AAAPO. “The increase in passengers and airport workers only elevate the chances of an incident with someone who is destabilized — it is just a numbers game, plain and simple. We need to look at the circumstances that are right in front of us and implement common-sense solutions, so that we are not looking back and saying, ‘We never saw that coming.’”
“I saw it with my own eyes three weeks ago — another guy crawling over our ‘state-of- the-art’ $100 million PIDS system at JFK,” said Paul Nunziato, president of the Port Authority Police Benevolent Association and co-founder of AAAPO. “Had he spent more time playing video games, who knows what havoc he could have wreaked with unauthorized access to the planes.
“As Marshall said, it is a numbers game. We have become complacent since 9/11. Not changing a broken PIDS system, reducing the number of airport police and having an airport employee access system that can so easily be circumvented are just a few examples,” Nunziato said. “Our officers are on the front lines in defense of these immense and important airport assets. Maybe it is time that we were on the front line in providing guidance on what actually needs to change to prevent needless and senseless acts that could serve as a blueprint for others who have more nefarious intentions.”