In less than a month the U.S. will mark the 17th Anniversary of the tragic 9/11 events, which forever changed life as we knew it. One of the biggest changes was in airport security, both here and abroad. Yet, last week a man apparently on a suicide mission reignited a national conversation about the current state of airport security.
Richard Russell, a 29-year-old Puget Sound man, commandeered a Q400 turboprop Bombardier airplane earlier this month from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac). Russell had been employed at the airport as a baggage handler and grounds crew member for three years. There is no proof the man was a licensed pilot. However, he had obtained security clearances when he was hired by the airport because he did not have a criminal history. The clearances allowed him to gain access to the plane. He also was familiar with the process of towing aircraft across the tarmac, knowledge that he used to steal the plane.
The 76-seat plane belonged to Horizon Air, which operates under the Alaska Airlines name. Russell took the aircraft on a joy ride for approximately an hour. Shortly after the aircraft left the ground, two Air Force F-15s were scrambled from Portland, Oregon, to intercept and divert it away from the Seattle metro area and toward the Pacific Ocean. North American Aerospace Defense (NORAD) Command oversees airspace protection in North America and a spokesman for the agency, Air Force Capt. Cameron Hillier told the media that the F-15s did not fire on the aircraft. They accompanied the rogue plane at a safe distance.
After performing aerobatic maneuvers, including loops and barrel rolls, Russell told the control tower that the aircraft was almost out of fuel. He guided the plane to Ketron Island, an area 25 miles south of Sea-Tac that is sparsely inhabited, where he plunged it into a wooded area in what federal authorities called an act of suicide. Recorded radio chatter with the control tower and pilots attempting to help the man safely land the plane were full of ramblings from a madman.
The incident is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Federal authorities assured the public that the incident “was not viewed as an act of terrorism” but they are concerned that the act was carried out so easily by an employee from the inside.
The former inspector general of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Mary Schiavo, described two issues that are likely in the minds of the investigators. She explained that screening procedures for airline mechanics and ground crew members are not as thorough as those for pilots and the screenings do not include mental health exams. She also explained that “security procedures are not always observed, especially for smaller commuter aircraft such as the Bombardier Q400.”
Sea-Tac defended its security protocols and explained that there were no lapses in security at the time of the incident. They described the event as “an aberration” but said, “that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.” Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden agreed that the event will serve as a lesson and that the company will take steps to “make sure this does not happen again at Alaska or any other airline.”