Op-Ed: Alaska Air’s Snoozing Bag Handler Isn’t a Security Issue

photo by Paul Thompson
photo by Paul Thompson

In the fallout of the recent accidental stowaway of an Alaska Airlines baggage handler, (who was employed by a contractor service, by the way) “safety experts” are saying the incident should serve as a warning to carriers, calling it a security risk.

Not so fast! Every person working around planes on the ground (an area called “the ramp”) is authorized to be in, on, or under that aircraft by way of a background check and a identification badge called a SIDA badge (Secure Identification Display Area). And just to get to the ramp, the employee has to pass through several layers of security including personal bag searches, badge scans, fingerprint scans, and visual badge verifications be airport security personnel. Many of those checkpoints are also in view of surveillance cameras.

Safety consultant and former airline pilot John Cox told the Associated Press the concern is “How do you have something in the cargo bin that you don’t know is there?” But where is the risk, when all employees are eligible to be there, and all baggage and cargo is fully screened by the TSA?

Bags in the bin

Experts want more accountability from the airlines, to make sure every crew member is accounted for, before the flight departs. That is a fine idea, in theory – but it adds to the complication of the operation. Every airline does things differently, but there are always more agents there when the plane arrives than when it departs. Many airlines utilize employees to cover several gates, and when an agent is done with one flight, he or she often goes on to the next one before the first plane departs. To require the whole crew to stick around throughout the entire “turn” from start to finish would be an irresponsible waste of personnel resources. In addition, everyone working flights is an adult, and accountable for his or her own actions. They don’t need babysitters, and they shouldn’t be required to report to to a supervisor to say “Hey, I’m going over to Gate 34 now.”

I’ve worked in the belly of hundreds of planes, and I’ve seen guys take short naps under there while waiting for connecting bags to arrive. You may not realize this, but it’s not unusual for ramp agents to be on the clock for sixteen straight hours or longer. Airlines try to operate with as few staff on hand as possible, in order to cut costs – but when something like bad weather happens, the folks who are already at work are forced to stay past their normal clock-out time. The employees get paid extra, but it compounds work that has already left them physically and mentally exhausted.

If someone has the opportunity to catch a brief cat nap during down time, I think it actually makes things safer, because it helps revive them and make them more alert. The baggage contractor for Menzies Aviation who fell asleep in the bin of Alaska Airlines flight 448 on Monday isn’t a security risk. Not to make excuses for the guy… he should be held responsible for his actions, and possibly even fired. The plane was only in the air for fourteen minutes, but it wastes a lot of time and money to have to return the plane to the airport – not to mention the negative publicity. Let this serve as an example of irresponsibility, not a scary security risk.

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Paul Thompson

Highly passionate about all things related to aviation! I combine my knowledge of the aircraft manufacturing and airline industry to provide a detailed and first-person point of view. I have worked on unique stories with airlines and companies including American Airlines, British Airways, Goodyear, Honeywell, jetBlue, Lufthansa, Qatar Airways, Red Bull Air Racing, Southwest Airlines, and the U.S. Navy.

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