Each day, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization services 44,000 flights and 2.7 million passengers. Commercial aviation is a massive industry that has a significant daily impact on many lives and industries. Despite the importance of air travel, there are few other consumer industries in which trust and safety feel so delicate.
The events of September 11, 2001 proved to an entire generation what can happen when someone with malicious intent boards a plane. Those lessons reverberate years later, most evident in the realm of airport security, which used to be far more relaxed than it is now. They also impact what occurs behind the scenes to keep passengers safe—particularly regarding the employee background checks that airlines conduct.
Employee background checks for airline and airport workers are in-depth. While there are numerous companies controlled by competing corporations, their airline and airport background checks are similar. The reason is that these background checks are largely dictated by policies laid forth by the FAA and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Each government agency has a different set of requirements that airports and airlines must meet when vetting their employees. A TSA background check, for instance, demands criminal searches at multiple levels (county, state, federal, and FBI), license verifications, Social Security Number validations, driving history checks, and more.
These background checks have evolved over the years. In 2015, the TSA discovered that a baggage handler had been smuggling firearms aboard flights. The agency ramped up its employee background check requirements in the wake of that incident, implementing a new process intended to permit ongoing criminal monitoring of personnel.
Background checks aren’t the only matter of interest. In 2019, the United Nations pushed to establish a global standard that would require all airport or airline employees to be screened before entering restricted areas at airports. The intention behind the UN proposal was to prevent employees from abusing their privileges by carrying contraband past security and onto aircraft. U.S. legislators pushed back against the idea, arguing that it would add delays and costs without providing notable security gains over existing policies. It is standard at most airports for airport and airline employees to be screened at random when entering restricted areas.
Even with employee background checks and security requirements in place, dangers sometimes slip through the cracks. In September 2019, an American Airlines mechanic was arrested for allegedly attempting to sabotage a passenger flight an hour before it took off from Miami International Airport. The mechanic—Abdul-Majeed Marouf Ahmed Alani—was 60 years old and had worked for American Airlines since 1988. Further investigation of Alani revealed that he had been fired from a concurrent job with Alaska Airlines a decade earlier after being found responsible for several “missteps that led to multiple FAA investigations.” American Airlines missed that disciplinary action because Alani was already an employee when the offense occurred.
Airline and airport background checks are vital for protecting the millions of passengers who take to the skies each day. While airport security has been a priority since 9/11, that doesn’t mean the systems and policies in place today are perfect.
As the American Airlines mechanic case proves, there is still room for improvement in employee background checks and monitoring. By being flexible and willing to update their employee screening policies as needed, airlines can continue to make air travel safer for all.