FYI.

This story is over 5 years old.

We Asked a Former Baggage Handler if an Airline Employee Could Sneak a Bomb on a Plane

Just how easy would it be for someone with runway access to put a bomb onto a plane before takeoff?

Photo via Flickr user Christopher Sessums

On Saturday, Metrojet Flight 9268 exploded in the sky over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Shortly after, ISIS, who has a presence in the area, began taking credit for the Russian flight's demise and the 224 lives lost as a result. Though no official cause for the crash has been released, both US and UK officials believe the explosion may have come from a bomb placed on the plane before takeoff. As reported earlier today, all flights between the UK and Sharm El-Sheikh, the airport from which the flight took off, have been canceled until British investigators evaluate security measures there.

Metrojet is an extremely tiny airline, with only six planes in their whole fleet. And according to flightradar24.com, a flight tracking service available to the public, the recent flight history of 9268 shows it sat at Sharm el-Sheikh for several hours before being reloaded and sent back out—arriving at the airport on the afternoon of October 30 and heading out the next day. Special attention is being paid to airport and airline employees who may have had access to the plane before takeoff, but how likely is it that someone from the runway staff or plane crew could successfully plant a bomb on a plane?

We reached out to a former ramp agent, Kevin Brosky, who worked at Philadelphia International Airport for two different airlines between 2011 and 2015. While there his tasks included dealing with bags, freight, and marshalling planes in and out of the gates. We asked him how much of this speculation is rooted in reality.

VICE: How thorough was security protocol when you worked at Philadelphia International?
Kevin Brosky: Well, I can't speak for security screenings in other countries for ramp personnel, but I can tell you about PHL, which is probably very similar to most other US airports. Firstly to become a ramp agent, you need to pass a background check in order to be approved for an airport badge (which allows you to swipe in and out of secure areas, such as the ramp/tarmac, baggage areas, etc.). You need that badge on you at all times, visibly displayed, and the airport is pretty stringent about policing this.

However, ramp personnel do not go through TSA screening to come into work. Upstairs terminal workers do, but their badges don't grant access to the same areas. Ramp workers are already cleared to be in the secured areas of the airport, so the badge is all they need. I do remember random screenings by TSA, checking all ramp employees' bags, coming through the doors onto the ramp, on certain days, but these were rather few and far between. So most days, in essence, ramp personnel could actually bring whatever they wanted with them to work. For someone who worked in your position at an airport, how possible would it be for them to do harm to a flight?
Most flights worked throughout the day are "turn flights," meaning the plane comes in from one destination to the gate, those passengers and bags come off, and it's quickly turned for another outbound flight, usually within an hour's time. If the inbound flight was behind schedule, the turnaround times can be much shorter. So it's a very time-sensitive operation. Another point is that ramp employees work together on a crew of people to handle each flight. These range from about three to seven people, on average. These teams work very closely together to handle the loads going on the flight, and there are multiple sets of eyes on every item going on and off the plane. Every piece of baggage and freight needs a bar code tag, which is scanned. There is a lead agent to make sure every single piece is accounted for, as weight and balance is very important on every flight. Beyond that, there is always someone on the crew doing a final walk-around, inspecting all accessible areas of the plane. So, would it be possible for a ramp agent to plant something malicious on a flight? Definitely. Is it a realistic scenario? Probably not, in my experience. That person would have to be extremely sneaky about it and get past a bunch of people's eyes. Anything you saw while working at the airport that was particularly distressing? Like, that made you think, Bad people could do bad things because of… [fill in the blank]
Here's something to consider: In just four years working in the industry, I saw an overwhelming trend of airlines trying to cut corners to save money. The biggest example, especially at a non-hub station like PHL, was the drastic reduction in staffing. "Non-hub"?
Well, in the context of an individual airline, they have hub stations and then just other downline stations. Philadelphia was a U.S. Airways hub, meaning you could fly from there to just about anywhere they fly. The airline I was at had hubs in Houston, San Fran, Chicago, and Denver, to name a few, so the flights we worked were only really to and from those hub cities, where people would connect to other destinations. My understanding is that the working experience is much different at hub stations than what I experienced. As in, they will always be appropriately staffed and the airlines concentrate more on their hub airports. Got it. Continue. [Note: Sharm el-Sheikh International Airport is a hub for Air Cairo, AMC Airlines, EgyptAir, EgyptAir Express, and Nesma Airlines. It is not a hub for Metrojet.]
Delta, for example, no longer hires part-time employees and rarely promotes existing employees to full-time. Instead, they've created a new class of employee, which they call Ready Reserve. They say it allows for flexible scheduling, with access to flight benefits and is a "win-win" for everybody. Well, at Philadelphia International, hours were not at all "flexible," and in fact, with this somehow-legal program, the company caps the number of hours an employee can work for the year in order to avoid paying any real benefits. In other words, unless you're just looking for a very supplemental job and the flight benefits, it's a scam. Airlines do not want career people anymore. That's no good.
Another thing they've started doing is just simply outsourcing smaller stations and contracting the work out to other companies, who pay basically minimum wage. Philly International is always in danger of this for these two airlines. The last one I worked for has laid off so many employees at smaller stations over the past few years. These new employees are paid terribly, with no benefits, and really have no loyalty to the parent company, quite frankly. They just don't do as thorough a job, and why should they? When I started working at the airport in 2011, I was routinely working on crews of six or so people to handle flights, which was great. Over my last few years there, and after transferring airlines, I saw that number get down to about three people, which is basically the bare minimum. The natural result of having less people working a flight is that the safety of employees suffers, and also, there are less eyes on the operation, which is key in preventing incidents. It's a distressing trend and is maybe another variable to consider. Flight tracking info for this particular flight shows it spent the night at Sharm, so it doesn't fit the "turn flight" scenario you described earlier. Could that play into this at all?
Ramp crews, at least in the U.S., are supposed to do a security sweep of a plane that's been sitting there for longer than a certain amount of time, and on any overnighting flight, before loading. But I'm not sure what the procedures for this would be over there. In any case, yes, it's possible something could have been placed on this plane by someone who had access to the secured area of the airport, and it's also possible the ramp crew for the outbound flight wouldn't have noticed it. Metrojet flight 9268 was a charter flight. What's the significance of that, if any?
For our purposes, the airlines I worked for, it was basically like a separately ordered flight, outside of our regular flight schedule. Like we would sometimes work charter flights for sports teams traveling in and out of Philly. And these would be handled in a remote ramp location (airports have these areas for non-commercial flights), rather than at the passenger gates. So in that case, the TSA screening process was also done remotely, though I don't have much insight into how that went. I think the bigger point is that the previous flight was a RON (remain overnight) flight, so that means the plane was most definitely sitting somewhere, unattended, for a decent amount of time. Follow Brian on Twitter.