Baggage screeners at San Francisco International Airport allege that dozens if not hundreds of bags identified by X-ray machines as high-risk bomb threats are loaded onto planes each day without any human inspection in a clear violation of federal rules.
The screeners work for Covenant Aviation Security, the company charged with baggage and checkpoint security at SFO. They complain that company managers routinely cover up such security breaches and retaliate against employees who complain too loudly.
In interviews conducted over the past year, six company screeners told The San Francisco Examiner that supervisors regularly clear dozens of suspicious bags in rapid succession with no inspection during peak travel times, a practice they say has gone on for years.
“There’s a lot of good people down here,” said one longtime screener. “But a few are taking shortcuts and it’s dangerous. People’s lives depend on it — your family’s and my family’s.”
These whistle-blowers and other employees have complained to their supervisors and to federal aviation security officials in person and in at least three separate letters. But until recently, they say, all investigations into their complaints were cursory.
Two weeks ago, however, after a year of inquiries by The San Francisco Examiner, a federal agency launched a major inquiry into the alleged security breaches, according to an SFO baggage screener with years of experience.
“All I can say is, there is a big ongoing investigation from back East,” he said.
Although 137 Covenant screeners signed their names to one letter complaining about their manager, Gerardo Sanchez, and his alleged security breaches, few SFO whistle-blowers were willing to speak unless granted anonymity. They said they were afraid they would be fired if their identities were known.
“We want good security and the right people to run the airport,” one screener said. “If management finds out that we’re talking about this, we’re going to lose our jobs for sure.”
These whistle-blowers say their employer’s emphasis on profit before safety lies behind all the security breaches. Covenant’s goal, whistle-blowers claim, is to process bags more quickly, something essential for retaining its lucrative contract with SFO.
“All management is looking at is profit motive and how to save money,” said Ron Davis, a former supervisor in Covenant’s baggage screening room.
Despite such allegations, no whistle-blowers pointed to any case in which a high-risk bag had actually caused anyone harm, although one called it “an accident waiting to happen.”
SFO spokesman Michael McCarron denied that security breaches are a regular occurrence and insisted SFO is safe for travelers. He said the federal Transportation Security Administration regularly audits how airports screen baggage, and representatives of SFO’s Operations and Security Division frequently meet with agency officials and Covenant management.
“If it wasn’t safe, I would not work here,” McCarron said. “Nor would I allow my family to fly in and out of SFO.”
Covenant spokeswoman Margaret Cummins denied the accusations but refused to discuss them. At first, she said company officials could not comment without permission from the TSA, which initially declined such consent. But after agency officials changed their minds and said Covenant could respond, Cummins would only issue a cursory statement.
“All of the allegations alleged in your questions were investigated in depth by Covenant Aviation, the local TSA and TSA in Washington, D.C.,” Cummins wrote. “The results of those extensive investigations found there to be no basis for the allegations.”
TSA spokesman Nico Melendez confirmed that his agency received such complaints.
“TSA determined the application of screening procedures was not consistently applied, but passengers’ safety was not compromised,” he wrote. Melendez said the TSA would take the latest allegations seriously, but declined to answer more questions.
However, whistle-blowers say they don’t recall a single screener being interviewed by the TSA in the agency’s first inquiry. They also were perplexed about how any investigation could fail to spot security breaches they say are documented in daily baggage logs.
Whistle-blowers say those documents reveal that between 200 and 400 high-risk bags disappear off the logs most days on their way from baggage screening to baggage inspection, where bags should be manually inspected after screeners or X-ray machines identify them as bomb threats. Instead, bags are put on planes without manual inspection or given another pass through the screening system, which screeners call a breach of
Screeners had wanted another TSA investigation, but worry that their “smoking gun” — the baggage logs — will soon be lost. SFO is currently upgrading its baggage-screening machines with newer devices that won’t include records of past missteps.
“All the stuff that happened up to today will be erased and nobody can investigate,” said one longtime screener.
Whatever the case, the allegations could impact the national debate over airport security, according to Jeff Price, associate professor of aviation management at Metropolitan State College of Denver.
In February, after months of congressional debate on the merits of privatized security, President Barack Obama signed a law making it easier for firms such as Covenant to win airport security contracts. The TSA currently protects all but 17 U.S. airports. But SFO is the nation’s largest privately protected airport and a poster child for privatization.
“You’re talking about the company that’s captured the lion’s share of the market,” said Price, author of a textbook on airport security. “If this stuff is proven, it’s definitely going to raise the red flag for a lot of airports about whether to switch their operations to private screening.”