A flight attendant accused of carrying nearly 69 pounds of cocaine. A pilot charged with moonlighting as a pimp. An allegedly drunk co-pilot stopped before takeoff. A ramp agent charged with trying to move almost $300,000.
The recent spate of airline employee arrests — including the above examples — might make travelers wonder about the screening process for those involved in safely moving them and their stuff.
There are hundreds of airports in the United States; at the larger ones, there might be tens of thousands of people working up front and behind the scenes.
But as CNN learned in an investigation last year, only a few facilities screen every employee who has secure access.
Do these latest incidents suggest that this shouldn’t be the case, and that the airline industry needs to do more to tighten security among its workers?
Flight attendant allegedly hauls 68 pounds of cocaine
Investigators said last week that JetBlue flight attendant Marsha Gay Reynolds was hauling two carry-on bags stuffed with cocaine when she tried to pass through a Known Crewmember checkpoint this month at Los Angeles International Airport.
Known Crewmember checkpoints allow crew members to pass security more quickly and easily than passengers.
But Transportation Security Administration agents randomly selected Reynolds for an inspection. That’s when the 31-year-old allegedly dropped her bags, kicked off her Gucci heels and bolted.
The bags Reynolds ditched at the airport on March 18 contained 68.5 pounds of cocaine, authorities said. Reynolds later turned herself in to authorities.
The Known Crewmember program website says the TSA makes no distinction whether a crew member is traveling for business or pleasure.
It says crew members don’t get to bypass security. But even if a crew member is randomly picked for inspection, his or her bags will not be inspected unless a TSA officer chooses to conduct a secondary inspection.
Dennis Ring, Reynolds’ attorney, said he expects his client to plead not guilty when she gets goes to court in California.
JetBlue spokeswoman Sharon Jones said the airline is cooperating with authorities.
From pilot to pimping charge
Bruce Wayne Wallis was a United Airlines pilot and, according to police, a pimp for prostitutes who worked for him at several Houston brothels. According to a Houston Chronicle story, Wallis’ arrest last week resulted from a months-long investigation.
He was charged with aggravated promotion of prostitution and engaging in criminal activity. A lawyer for Wallis scoffed at the allegations, the newspaper reported.
United Airlines spokesman Luke Punzenberger told CNN: “We hold our employees to the highest standards and are assisting the authorities in this matter. We have removed the employee from his flying duties.”
It’s not uncommon for pilots to have side ventures. A pilot’s regular schedule has the pilot “on” for several days or weeks, followed by a stretch of “off” days. Some spend the downtime working as flight instructors or have side businesses, according to Daniel Fahl, a commercial airline pilot at a major U.S. airline.
And flight crew don’t do other things just for the pay. “We are a rare time where the industry is making a lot of money finally,” Fahl told CNN.
If a pilot gets involved in criminal activity in his or her spare time, it’s embarrassing to the industry — but not a sign of a trend or larger problem, according to Fahl. He said incidents like Wallis’ are rare.
Ramp agent found carrying $282,000
Jean Yves Selius, a Delta Air Lines ramp agent, was arrested Saturday at Florida’s Palm Beach International Airport for allegedly trying to hand off nearly $282,000 in cash to someone inside an airport bathroom.
Authorities say the 26-year-old used his airport identification to bypass security checkpoints and enter a so-called sterile area from the outside tarmac ramps. He was approached by an airport operation officer and asked to show the contents of his backpack.
Selius did so willingly, “revealing large packets of cash wrapped in clear, vacuum sealed bundles,” an affidavit states. He then told investigators he was getting paid up to $1,000 to give the backpack to an unknown person in a bathroom.
CNN called a number listed for Selius, but it had been disconnected.
Co-pilot fails sobriety tests
When Detroit Metropolitan Airport police received a report about a pilot who seemed drunk, John Maguire was already in the cockpit.
Police reached the American Airlines co-pilot on Saturday before his flight to Philadelphia took off.
The 50-year-old failed two sobriety tests, police said. He was charged with a misdemeanor because he wasn’t operating the plane.
The flight to Philadelphia was canceled.
“This is a serious matter and we will handle it appropriately, as the safety and care of our customers and employees is our highest priority,” American Airlines said. “We do not disclose employment status publicly, so we will not have further details to release.”
It was not clear whether Maguire has a lawyer representing him. His arraignment could be as early as next week, the prosecutor’s office said.
‘Egregious’ security breach in Atlanta
It’s scary when loaded guns make their way into a plane’s cabin. It’s even scarier when an airline employee is accused of helping get weapons on board.
In December 2014, authorities busted an alleged gun smuggling ring involving Delta Air Lines baggage handler Eugene Harvey and a former employee.
The two men worked together to smuggle guns and ammunition on at least 20 flights from Atlanta to New York, officials said. At least seven of the guns were loaded.
According to an affidavit, Harvey would wait for his accomplice to clear security as a passenger. Then, using his security clearance, Harvey would enter the secure portion of the airport without getting screened and meet the former employee.
Authorities believe the two men met in a restroom, where Harvey would give the man, who now faces charges in New York, the guns to smuggle.
Harvey pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him and is awaiting trial, court records show.
Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson called the operation an “egregious breach of security.”
“If they can put guns on the plane this time, they could have easily put a bomb on one of those planes,” he said.
After the two men were arrested, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport started screening employee bags before allowing workers into secure areas.
“There’s a phased-in approach to get to full employee screening,” airport spokesman Reese McCranie said.
Delta spokesman Morgan Durrant said after the arrests that the airline would cooperate with authorities.
“We take seriously any activity that fails to uphold our strict commitment to the safety and security of our customers and employees,” he said.
‘Not 100% foolproof’
Any industry has its share of bad apples. But in the airline industry, many employees enjoy security privileges that regular passengers do not.
Airline employees typically undergo a criminal background check and a fingerprint check and might get randomly screened while at work.
But there is no federal requirement that baggage handlers, mechanics, cleaning crews and other employees who have access to the airfield and other secure areas get screened the same way passengers do.
Why? Officials cite cost as a primary reason not everyone is screened.
An Aviation Security Advisory Committee working group report concluded that “100 percent physical screening of airport employees was not cost-effective, and that there were significant differences in the threats posed by criminal activity and terrorism.”
The report recommended increased “random and unpredictable” employee screening or inspection, more thorough background checks and continuous criminal activity monitoring.
Miami International Airport is one of the few major airports that require all employees with secure access to pass through metal detectors.
Still, with 30,000-plus workers, the airport isn’t completely immune from risk, security director Lauren Stover said.
“It’s not 100% foolproof, and we know that people are going to exploit the vulnerabilities that they can find,” she said. “We’re not just looking for terrorist activity. We have a range of threats.”