Airline employee who stole plane highlights insider threats

Last Updated Aug 13, 2018 7:01 PM EDT

SEATTLE — An airline employee exposed a gaping hole in airport security over the weekend. Richard Russell easily stole a commercial aircraft and took it on fatal flight.

Monday, the people responsible for security at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport met to talk about what can be done to keep it from happening again.

For more than an hour, the stolen plane soared and flipped in the skies above Seattle while controllers on the ground had no idea who they were dealing with.

Russell worked for Horizon Air as a baggage and cargo handler at SeaTac, which has some of the nation’s most stringent security procedures for ground personnel. Authorities are still at a loss to explain why he suddenly seized control of an empty, 76-seat commuter plane.

He used a tow tractor to turn the turboprop aircraft 180-degrees toward the runway, then climbed aboard. Without pilot training, Russell got behind the controls and positioned the plane for an unauthorized takeoff.

An air traffic controller could be heard saying: “Right now, he’s just flying around, and just he needs some help controlling his aircraft.”

Russell is then heard on audio recording: “Nah, I mean, I don’t need that much help. I’ve played some video games before.”

Last year, Congress passed a law mandating tougher screening standards for all airport employees. Ground workers in Seattle undergo criminal background checks, go through metal detectors, have their bags screened and their fingerprints scanned to verify their identity. However, there are no psychological screenings.

“With regard to mental health, we do do screening in terms of background checking for all airport workers,” Transportation Security Administration’s David Pekoske told CBS News. “And really, one of the things that we emphasize, ‘if you see something say something,’ also applies for insider threats.”

A 2017 homeland security report shows nearly 900,000 people work at the nation’s 450 airports and the report warned: “There are increasing concerns that insider threats to aviation security are on the rise.”

“I think this is really truly a one in a million experience,” Port of Seattle Commission president Courtney Gregoire told CBS News. “That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.”

Kris Van Cleave contributed to this report.

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