If you follow the news, you may have heard about the recently uncovered security debacle at Atlanta’s airport.  In that case, a Delta Airlines baggage handler and an accomplice allegedly smuggled numerous firearms aboard flights from Atlanta to New York for black market sales. The Delta employee, by way of his airport access identification, was able to skirt all physical security checks. This occurred for years and was never detected by the TSA or airport police.

What makes the situation particularly troubling is that most experts do not believe it to be an isolated problem. Without sufficient employee screening, airport access badges only create a veneer of security that can let criminals or terrorists slip through the cracks.

In the wake of the shocking revelations from Atlanta, the question is no longer whether additional personnel security measures are warranted in the aviation industry, but rather how radical those changes should be. Is it just a matter of enforcing better physical security at our airports, or does that approach attack the symptom while ignoring the disease?

The Fallacy of Airport Security Background Investigations

I recently offered commentary on this issue for several media outlets, including The New York Times and The Epoch Times. The articles discuss the popular (and erroneous) belief that airport employees must undergo an extensive security background investigation like government employees or federal contractors. In actuality, any “investigation” typically consists of running the applicant through the FBI’s criminal history database and a drug test – tasks often left to local airport badging offices. Checking of references and employment history is up to individual employers, and there is rarely investigation into the very real security issues of employee financial vulnerabilities, foreign connections, and mental health history.

The result is that, with the exception of FAA-licensees (e.g. pilots) and TSA officers, few of the people working in the “secure” area of airports have any more of a background investigation than the average private-sector employee. Yet they are also often exempted from TSA physical security checks through the use of restricted employee entrances.

With the number of people employed at large airports, it would be all but impossible to require all airport employees to undergo the same degree of physical screening to which the TSA subjects passengers. There is, however, another option: more intensive federally-mandated background investigations.

Fewer Clearances = More Problems

On one hand, some critics (including myself) point out that the government’s background investigations programs have their own shortcomings – primarily, a lack of thoroughness caused by an over-taxed, overly bureaucratic system. On the other hand, the solution floated by some in Congress of decreasing the number of people with access to classified information misses the mark. Much damage can be done by federal employees, contractors, and, yes, airport employees, who don’t have access to classified information but who nonetheless work in sensitive positions. Shrinking the pool of positions subject to federal background investigation naively equates access to classified information with the ability to harm national security.

The cost of expanding federal background checks to airport workers is also of potential concern. In actuality, cost would be minimal if structured based on risk (the airport McDonald’s employee, for example, arguably requires less of a background investigation than the guy loading baggage out on the tarmac). For lower risk employees, something similar to the federal “NACLC” check – the database check run on new military recruits – would probably suffice and can be conducted for less than $300, according to the government’s most recent numbers. Employees with access to more sensitive areas or those for whom a NACLC check develops serious issues would require further investigation.

There is sure to be lively debate on this issue when the new Congress arrives this month, and airline industry employers will no doubt balk at the costs and logistics involved in such a proposal. Ultimately, however, I hope common sense prevails. You can’t put a price tag on safety.


This article is intended as general information only and should not be construed as legal advice. Consult an attorney regarding your specific situation. 

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Sean M. Bigley retired from the practice of law in 2023, after a decade representing clients in the security clearance process. He was previously an investigator for the Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency (then-U.S. Office of Personnel Management) and served from 2020-2024 as a presidentially-appointed member of the National Security Education Board. For security clearance assistance, readers may wish to consider Attorney John Berry, who is available to advise and represent clients in all phases of the security clearance process, including pre-application counseling, denials, revocations, and appeals. Mr. Berry can be found at https://www.berrylegal.com/practice-areas/security-clearance/.