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Tightened security closes door on airport employment

You know the drill. Place your carry-on luggage and jacket in the bin to be scanned. Take any metal objects…

By Rod MacNeill , in City , on October 29, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

Airports security keeps people and aircraft apart
Airport security keeps people and aircraft apart

You know the drill. Place your carry-on luggage and jacket in the bin to be scanned. Take any metal objects out of your pockets and walk through the detector. Arms out to your sides. And security wants to look through your laptop bag.

You’ve repeated it every time you’ve boarded a flight for as long as you can remember, but you have probably haven’t seen airport employees completing the same routine. They do.

It’s one of the behind the scenes security measures occurring at airports more after 9/11 to ensure the safety of air travel.

Changes made in April to security protocols have tightened access to secure areas at Canadian airports. A new information-sharing agreement between Transport Canada and the RCMP have made it more difficult for criminals to obtain security clearance required for airport employment.

And existing employees may get stung by the changes.Unions are concerned because the Transport Canada changes affects members renewing their security clearance.

“You should always have a process for appeal, and if there is none, or it’s a very secretive type of appeal process, or very hidden, then it becomes problematic because we can’t do our job,” said Carlos Da Costa of the IAMASW.

The International Association of Machinist and Areospace Workers represents airport employees working in and around aircraft at Canada’s airports.

Questions over approval process

Da Costa said the tightened criminal background checks will make it hard for the union to support any of its members who are working against the law.

“On the other [hand], if somebody is, by virtue of something they may have done, or by an error, accused of being negligent or having done something illegal, that’s where we have a problem.”

And the Transport Canada process does lack transparency. Once applications for security clearance are completed, they are sent to Ottawa for processing.

The approval process is “go or no-go,” said Jim Edward, manager of security at Calgary’s airport.

“A letter goes directly to the individual and we’re given a kind of courtesy copy.” he said. “We’re never advised of the reason why. We’re just advised that they haven’t been accepted for security clearance.”

Criminal background checks strengthened

On April 8 Transport Canada and the RCMP signed an agreement to make it easier for the agencies to share information about applicants for airport security passes. All airport employees are required by Transport Canada to carry a security card to access restricted areas. Applicants’ information is reviewed for criminal associations by the RCMP.

Ground service worker have access to aircraft
Ground service workers have access to aircraft

Prior to the agreement, even when the RCMP supplied information that an applicant had a criminal background or organized crime associates, his application was not automatically refused by Transport Canada.

If not considered a threat to aircraft or passengers, the applicant would pass security clearance.

Law enforcement is not the mandate of Transport Canada.

But concealing drugs on an aircraft could impact its safe operation and, therefore, threaten the transportation system.

According to Project SPAWN (PDF), a RCMP report on airport criminal activity released in December 2008, the majority of individuals investigated were employed by ground services companies having direct access to aircraft.

The most common criminal activity in the report was smuggling drugs into Canada by air through Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto.

Keeping in mind that more than 88,000 employees at the eight major Canadian airports have security passes, RCMP investigators examined 793 cases of airport crime between January 2005 and August 2007.

They identified 1,326 individuals involved in criminal activities at Class 1 airports. Within this group, 298 were airport employees, 68 of whom were believed to still be employed at the completion of the study.

Airline employees targeted

Typically, criminal organizations carry out their activities by placing members into the airport workforce or by recruiting or coercing workers in legitimate businesses to participate in, or ignore, criminal acts.

According to Project SPAWN, airline employees are also targeted by these organizations for access to their Buddy or Companion Passes. Passes are an airline employment benefit and provide free air travel.

The report cites the example of one airline employee who had two members of a criminal organization on his Buddy Pass list. These free passes are then used by drug couriers to move drugs between Canadian cities.

Since the new information sharing agreement went into effect in April of this year, Transport Canada data indicates an increase in refusals of security clearance applications.

Another impact of the increased scrutiny of applications, according to Edwards in Calgary, is that “. . . the process has slowed considerably while they bring this new program into place.”