Seattle airplane theft prompts review of security measures

SEATTLE (AP) — The spectacular theft of a 76-seat plane from the Seattle airport by a ground crew employee is prompting an industrywide review of how to thwart such insider security threats, though it remains unclear what steps airlines might take.

"This is too big a deal. It's not going to go away," said Glen Winn, a former Secret Service agent who teaches in the University of Southern California's aviation security program. "There's going to be a lot of discussion, a lot of meetings, a lot of finger-pointing, and it's going to come down to: How do we stop it?"

Investigators are continuing to piece together how 3½-year Horizon Air employee Richard Russell stole the empty Bombardier Q400 turboprop on Friday evening and took off on a roughly 75-minute flight, executing steep banks and even a barrel roll while being tailed by fighter jets. He finally crashed into a forested island south of Seattle.

Airline employee steals plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

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Airline employee steals plane at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport
This undated image posted to Richard Russell's YouTube channel shows Russell, an airline ground agent. Investigators are piecing together how Russell stole an empty commercial airplane, took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Seattle, and crashed into a small island in the Puget Sound in Washington. (Richard Russell/YouTube via AP)
This photo taken from video provided by Courtney Junka shows the stolen Horizon Air turboprop plane flying over Eatonville, Wash., Friday, Aug. 10, 2018. Officials say an airline employee stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane with no passengers aboard, and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing into a small island. The Pierce County Sheriff's Department says preliminary information suggests the crash occurred because the 29-year-old man was "doing stunts in air or lack of flying skills." (Courtney Junka via AP)
Smoke rises from the site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport as seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane Friday and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
The site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport is seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
People wait near the luggage area at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Friends of Richard Russell give parting hugs after making a statement to the media Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, at the Orting Valley Police and Fire Department, in Orting, Wash. Russell is presumed dead after stealing a Horizon Airlines plane from SeaTac International Airport and crashing it into Ketron Island in the Puget Sound. (Bettina Hansen /The Seattle Times via AP)
Smoke rises from the site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport as seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane Friday and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Mike Mathews and friends of Richard Russell talk to the media Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, at the Orting Valley Police and Fire Department, in Orting, Wash. Russell is presumed dead after stealing a plane from SeaTac International Airport and crashing it into Ketron Island Friday, Aug. 10. (Bettina Hansen /The Seattle Times via AP)
People stand in the Alaska Airlines ticket area at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Law enforcement officials work at a staging area, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash., near where a Coast Guard spokeswoman said the agency was responding to a report of a smoke plume and possible plane crash. Earlier in the evening, officials at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport said an Alaska Airlines plane had been stolen and later crashed. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Air Alaska maintenance workers walk through the the terminal, following an incident where an airline employee took off in an airplane, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, Washington, U.S., August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
The site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport is seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Air Alaska passengers wait in the terminal following an incident where an airline employee took off in an airplane, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, Washington, U.S., August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
Ferry workers stand by as fire trucks are parked on a ferry boat headed to Ketron Island, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was chased by military jets before crashing onto Ketron, a small island in the Puget Sound, on Friday night, officials said. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Alaska Airlines planes are pictured at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport the day after Horizon Air ground crew member Richard Russell took a plane from the airport in Seattle, Washington on August 11, 2018. - A 29-year-old 'suicidal' airport worker who commandeered an empty plane from Seattle's main airport and took it on an hour-long flight chased by F-15 fighter jets before crashing into a small island did not commit any security violations, officials said Saturday. Horizon Air employee Richard Russell told an air traffic controller he was 'just a broken man' minutes before dying late Friday in the Bombardier Q400 twin-engine turboprop plane, appearing to apologize for his actions. Law enforcement officials identified him to US media. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP) (Photo credit should read JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images)
An Alaska Airlines Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 operated by Horizon Air takes off from at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport International Airport one day after Horizon Air ground crew member Richard Russell took a similar plane from the airport in Seattle, Washington on August 11, 2018. - A 29-year-old 'suicidal' airport worker who commandeered an empty plane from Seattle's main airport and took it on an hour-long flight chased by F-15 fighter jets before crashing into a small island did not commit any security violations, officials said Saturday. Horizon Air employee Richard Russell told an air traffic controller he was 'just a broken man' minutes before dying late Friday in the Bombardier Q400 twin-engine turboprop plane, appearing to apologize for his actions. Law enforcement officials identified him to US media. (Photo by Jason Redmond / AFP) (Photo credit should read JASON REDMOND/AFP/Getty Images)
The site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport is seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane Friday and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Alaska Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday evening, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Fire trucks drive toward a ferry boat headed to Ketron Island, Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, at the ferry terminal in Steilacoom, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an empty Horizon Air turboprop plane, took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was chased by military jets before crashing onto Ketron, a small island in the Puget Sound, on Friday night, officials said. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Planes sit on the tarmac at Sea-Tac International Airport after service was halted after an Alaska Airlines plane was stolen Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (Bettina Hansen /The Seattle Times via AP)
Alaska Airlines planes sit on the tarmac at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday evening, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash. An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
Workers gather in a staging area Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash., near the site on Ketron Island in Washington state where an Horizon Air turboprop plane crashed Friday after it was stolen from Sea-Tac International Airport. Investigators were working to find out how an airline employee stole the plane and crashed it after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Rows of traffic, headed up by Washington State Department of Natural Resources trucks, waits to be let on board a ferry from Steilacoom, Wash., to Ketron Island, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018. Investigators are piecing together how an airline ground agent stole an empty commercial airplane, took off from Sea-Tac International Airport and crashed into the small island in the Puget Sound after being chased by military jets that were quickly scrambled to intercept the aircraft. (Rebekah Welch /The Seattle Times via AP)
Air Alaska passengers wait in the terminal following an incident where an airline employee took off in an airplane, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle, Washington, U.S., August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid
People stand in the Alaska Airlines ticket area at Sea-Tac International Airport Friday, Aug. 10, 2018, in SeaTac, Wash.An airline mechanic stole an Alaska Airlines plane without any passengers and took off from Sea-Tac International Airport in Washington state on Friday night before crashing near Ketron Island, officials said. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)
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Russell was killed. No one else was hurt. In conversation with an air-traffic controller, he described himself as "just a broken guy," said he "wasn't really planning on landing" the aircraft, and claimed he didn't want to hurt anyone else.

Port of Seattle Commissioner Courtney Gregoire called the theft from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport "truly a one-in-a-million experience," but added, "That doesn't mean we can't learn from it."

She said airport officials have been in touch with other airports and airlines to begin to assess procedures. Sea-Tac has added security guards in the cargo area where the plane was parked when Russell stole it, she said.

"We're not waiting," Gregoire said. "We expect a national-level conversation. We expect the federal government may have some ideas about regulation."

The industry group Airlines for America confirmed it is closely reviewing the incident but would not comment further. The National Transportation Safety Board referred questions to the FBI, which has released limited information about the investigation.

"There's a lot of discussion about: What does this tell us?" said Michael Huerta, who retired in January as head of the Federal Aviation Administration. "I wouldn't be surprised if the individual airlines came together with the regulators and made a decision that we need to do more."

Potential solutions could include additional vetting or monitoring of employees; changes in who can access the planes and when; having parked aircraft monitored by closed-circuit television or by security patrols; requiring electronic or digital passcodes to start a plane's engines; or requiring locks that could prevent an unauthorized person from manipulating a plane's throttle, experts said.

Aviation professor Jeff Price of Metropolitan State University in Denver said he expects a renewed focus on insider threats and warned that there is a real possibility Russell's actions could inspire terrorists or copycats.

Countering an insider threat remains challenging, given the number of people — caterers, mechanics, cleaning staff and others — who have access to aircraft.

Such workers already undergo background checks and drug and alcohol screenings. At some airports, including Sea-Tac, they are also subject to physical screenings the way passengers are.

Russell was not believed to have had a pilot's license. His responsibilities included towing and pushing aircraft for takeoff and gate approach, de-icing them and handling baggage.

Many planes in service were designed decades ago and are started up by manipulating levers and switches in a certain sequence, rather than by, say, an ignition key.

Experts said Russell had to have known how to start the plane, taxi and take off, but it's not clear where he learned to do so. He told the air-traffic controller he didn't need much help flying because he had played video games.

John Cox, a veteran pilot and aviation security expert with Washington, D.C.-based Safety Operating Systems, said that given the rarity of commercial airplane theft, there should be no rush to adopt additional measures that might bog down airlines or otherwise be counterproductive.

The investigation, once complete, will likely show any shortcomings that need to be remedied, he suggested.

He also cast doubt on some ideas suggested by others, saying it would probably be prohibitively expensive to retrofit older planes with measures such as computer passcodes.

"It's not as simple as putting a key fob in your pocket and getting in your car and pushing a button," he said.

Cox also questioned the effectiveness of having more guards monitoring parked planes.

"If you're a guard and a person comes up in a pushback tug, in uniform, with proper credentials, it's only at the point the engine starts that you'd notice something's amiss," he said. "By then it's too late."

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