Sunday, May 21, 2017
After airport shooting, flying with a gun still too easy
The South Florida Sun Sentinel Editorial Board
Have we learned anything from the slaughter wrought by a gunman at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in January?
Because four months after this preventable tragedy, Sun Sentinel columnist Dave Hyde reports it remains easy to fly below the radar of suspicion while flying on a one-way ticket with a gun and ammunition in checked luggage.
Remember, this is how Esteban Santiago presented himself at Anchorage International Airport the day that marked the worst airport shooting in our nation's history.
After collecting his gun case at baggage claim, officials say Santiago ducked into the restroom, loaded his gun, then came out and shot 11 people, killing five.
In the aftermath, Fort Lauderdale airport security officials told us the Anchorage airline agent should have been more suspicious and flagged someone in security to have a chat with Santiago. We were told that at big airports, agents regularly flag security agents about travelers who present in eyebrow-raising ways. And we were told airport personnel are trained that if they "see something, say something."
Again, apparently not.
To see how easy it was for Santiago to do what he did, Hyde took five one-way flights through five big airports across the country, checking a locked case that contained a semi-automatic handgun and ammunition.
And he found no one batted an eye.
While the Broward Sheriff's Office stepped up airport security after the shooting, the federal government is responsible for screening passengers and the airlines handle the check-in and collection of luggage.
And after reading Hyde's report, it's clear that what happened in January could easily happen again today.
After the shooting, BSO began an after-action analysis report of its response. Broward County government has commissioned a report, too. Once she sees those reports, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the airport, has said she expects to file legislation. One bill might involve how travelers are reunited with their ammunition. Another might address airport evacuation planning.
Meanwhile, the house is on fire.
There's a hole in the dam.
And Rome is burning.
Something needs to be done now, pronto, as in yesterday.
Does no one remember the number of 9/11 terrorists who flew on one-way tickets with ill intent in mind?
How is it possible that someone flying on a one-way ticket — with no luggage, but for a gun — fails to strike airline agents as suspicious?
Something needs to be done about the disparate airline policies that allowed Hyde to travel in the same fashion as Santiago without tripping alarm bells.
For starters, the federal government should assume greater authority for the safety of airline travel, rather than delegate so much to the airlines. Yes, the Transportation Security Administration requires firearms to be checked in a locked case, but airlines have their own policies for how people check and collect their weapons.
We checked the policies of the five airlines that Hyde flew. Only one — Delta, the airline flown by Santiago — now requires bags containing weapons to be secured with a zip tie and marked with a special tag. The tie alerts handlers to send the case to a service agent, not the baggage claim carousel. Owners retrieve their bags from agents after showing identification.
Hyde flew Delta from Atlanta to Orlando and found the new system worked. Delta even has a special check-in counter for handguns at Hartsfield International Airport, the nation's busiest airport.
Hyde tried to check the gun curbside, but was told he must check it inside. The Delta agent then directed him to a TSA luggage-inspection room. There, after opening the box, the agent swabbed it inside and out for "foreign materials." The case was then re-locked.
At other airports, however, Hyde found his padlocked gun case sitting on a luggage carousel, where anyone could have taken it.
At the Fort Lauderdale airport where he started the trip, the gun case was put on the conveyor belt behind the American ticket desk, no questions asked. He then realized he'd left the keys in the padlock. The law says the owner must keep the keys. He returned to the ticket desk and the same agent found his luggage, then returned the keys.
In Las Vegas, when Hyde went to retrieve his case at Southwest Airlines, he found the padlocked case sitting unattended on a counter, with no airline agent or security around.
It's time the federal government standardized the rules for checking and retrieving weapons at all airlines. Guns and ammo should be retrieved at a safe place, with security on hand. Proper identification should be shown. And agents should be better trained, not only on enforcing the rules, but in spotting red flags.
Hyde's real-time report shows serious lapses remain in airport security. Let us not wait for another tragedy to address them.