The bizarre theft of a Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 turboprop, subsequent one hour joy ride accompanied by acrobatics and ultimately a fiery crash resulting in the death of a Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) employee will not only become urban legend-ary, but it will also surely result in a tighter security environment.
Given the overt security sensitivities prevalent in the US, the event will certainly have security ramifications for all US airports, and unfortunately these could spill over into the cargo realm as well.
Sea-Tac airport commissioner Courtney Gregoire was quoted as saying that the employee and nascent pilot, Richard Russell had the appropriate security clearance, including background checks, to be airside.
Gregoire said the Friday night incident was a “one-in-a-million experience.” One in-in-a-million too many no doubt, as the fall-out from this will surely demonstrate.
The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) said it does not consider the incident terror-related, but did highlight that the theft of a commercial aircraft from a major US airport has exposed a gap in airline security. Had Russell landed the aircraft he would have been up for serious charges, but clearly much less than had he ‘hijacked’ the aircraft.
Various aviation experts have come forth following the incident to point out that the theft exposed alarming holes in airport security, and is likely to prompt a major review of industry security measures.
“This is going to be a major learning event for the industry,” aviation analyst Justin Green told CNN. “This is a really big deal.”
Russell, a ground service agent, was wearing his uniform and displaying proper credentials when he entered the aircraft maintenance area and stole the aircraft. Alaska Air (the parent company of Horizon Air) CEO Brad Tilden noted that Russell had clearance to be in secure aircraft areas.
“They’re credential employees. They’re there to work on the airplanes. … This is aviation in America. The doors of the airplanes are not keyed like a car. There is not an ignition key like a car. The setup in aviation in America is we secure the airfield,” Tilden said.
And indeed, those handling cargo are also ‘credential employees’ and therein lies the rub.
Russell managed to break protocol several times: He shouldn’t have been able to board the aircraft alone and he also moved the aircraft by himself while protocol calls for two people to tow an aircraft.
“The fact he was out there by himself, towing the aircraft by himself … then moving the tracker out of the way, so he could get on the aircraft and move. The fact that all of that happened without even being noticed by anyone on the ground service crew, that is just phenomenal to me,” former FAA safety inspector David Soucie told CNN.
Perhaps more alarming for the ultimate fall-out, is the fact that Russell did not fit the bill of someone who would commit such an audacious act, according to co-workers, family and friends. But who really knows. Certainly early signs point to just a normal ‘Joe’ and that’s probably more worrisome in terms of what added security measures might befall the sector.
As for how, without any training, Russell managed to fly the aircraft, he was a self-admitted lover of computer flight simulator games and indeed US media has reported that all the necessary information on how to start and fly a Bombardier Q400 is easily available online. No surprise there.
Hopefully common sense will prevail and we won’t see an overzealous, knee-jerk reaction to put in place absurd security protocols. These would surely impact the cargo realm as well. But then again we live in the ‘Donald’ era.
What’s really needed is a rational, level-headed look at where the gaps are at Sea-Tac and whether they are widespread at other airports and take the necessary steps to close them.
Worst case scenario is the US security apparatus doing what it loves to do most – apply rigid new security regulations impacting all airside operations and – even more worst case – then making them a requirement internationally.
Of course the US doesn’t have the authority to do that outright, but then again, the country is a master at forcing through its own security prerogatives on carriers (and hence backwards through the chain) wishing to land on its hallowed ground.
This is not the end of the story by any stretch and only time will tell what shape and extend the fall-out will be. Fingers crossed it doesn’t add any unnecessary burdens on the cargo sector.