JetBlue agent at Charlotte airport fired in TSA sting

Jan 14 2011 - 1:17pm

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A second security breach at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport -- this one reportedly involving an undercover sting -- has cost a JetBlue ticket agent his job.

In a Nov. 19 test of aviation security, an undercover inspector for the Transportation Security Administration told the ticket agent that he needed to get a package to Boston that day -- and handed the employee a $100 bill, according to a TSA report obtained by a Boston television station.

The JetBlue employee pocketed the money and put the package in the name of an unwitting passenger on a flight to Boston, the report by WBZ-TV says.

The package went through the customary baggage screening and was grabbed by a TSA team before it was loaded onto the jet, according to the report.

That episode happened just four days after 16-year-old high school student Delvonte Tisdale apparently was able to stow away in the wheel well of a jet in Charlotte.

Tisdale's body was found Nov. 15 in Milton, Mass. Investigators believe Tisdale's body fell from a US Airways jet as it lowered its landing gear on the approach to Boston.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police are investigating the Tisdale case, and are trying to learn how he gained access to the plane.

After TSA tested security at the Charlotte airport on Nov. 19, the JetBlue ticket agent lost his job, the airline said. JetBlue declined to name the employee, or to say whether anyone has been criminally charged.

"We are fully cooperating with the TSA's investigation into this matter," the airline said in a statement Thursday. "... We will not provide additional comment as this is an ongoing investigation."

Charlotte/Douglas Airport Director Jerry Orr says it's the first time he's ever heard about an employee at the airport taking a bribe.

"If I thought it was an everyday practice, I'd be squealing," he said.

Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, espionage and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said bribery can punch holes in the airline security system. If people are able to bribe ticket agents to put packages on planes, he said, "that means there may be the potential to bribe people for something else as well... 'I'll give you twice as much if you bypass security altogether."'

Terrorists have apparently used bribery to blow up planes in the past, he noted. He spoke of a 2004 case, in which two alleged suicide bombers reportedly bribed airline personnel to board jets in Moscow. Explosions brought down the two jets almost simultaneously, killing 90 people.

Recent events have also given the TSA cause to be concerned about the potential threats posed by air cargo. In October, explosives were found in packages on U.S.-bound planes from Yemen.

The TSA declined to comment on its investigation, but said it routinely conducts covert tests to ensure airports and airline employees comply with security rules.

"TSA can assure travelers that, like checked baggage, every package tendered at the airline counter is screened for explosives and must conform to strict security rules before delivery to a passenger aircraft," the agency said in a statement.

Security officials tend to focus more on equipment than on the integrity of aviation employees, experts say.

Andrew Thomas, an aviation security expert at the University of Akron, said he was heartened to learn of the undercover operation in Charlotte.

"There's been concern that TSA has been overwhelmingly concerned about checkpoints at the expense of other things, like corrupt insiders," said Thomas, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Transportation Security.

"This is the way you really see the vulnerabilities in the system. ... It puts those who might think about doing something like this on alert."

In the Tisdale case, investigators are awaiting test results to determine whether grease found on the teenager's clothing matches grease used on aircraft examined at the Charlotte airport, Richard Wells, chief of the Milton, Mass. police told the (Quincy) Patriot Ledger newspaper this week.

Wells said he met three weeks ago with Charlotte police about Tisdale's death.

"They had put together an overlay of the airport and where the airplane was parked," Wells said. "They did have a lot of questions to answer. I know it's still an active case in Charlotte about how he (Tisdale) got on the plane."

William Keating, the former Massachusetts prosecutor who investigated Tisdale's death late last year, called the apparent security breach at the Charlotte airport a serious public safety issue.

(c) 2011, The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.).

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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