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Port of Seattle Commissioner Courtney Gregoire
Port of Seattle Commissioner Courtney Gregoire takes questions during a briefing at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. (Port of Seattle via YouTube)

Security measures have been stepped up at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, including the maintenance area where a ground support worker commandeered an empty plane for an unauthorized, and ultimately fatal, flight on Friday.

“You’ll see that increased presence,” Courtney Gregoire, president of the Port of Seattle Commission, said today at an informal Sea-Tac news briefing, “and we’ll keep monitoring what we need there.”

Gregoire didn’t go into detail about the nature of the security measures taken in air cargo areas. The Horizon Air plane, a Bombardier Q400 turboprop, had been parked for maintenance in one of those areas, known as Cargo 1, when airline employee Richard Russell took it out for an unauthorized flight.

Russell used a pushback tractor to turn the plane around 180 degrees and taxied out for takeoff. He flew the plane for more than an hour, saw the sights, did some risky aerobatic maneuvers and ultimately crashed on Ketron Island while F-15 fighter jets patrolled the skies. The FBI said on Sunday that Russell’s remains were recovered from the ashes of the debris, along with the plane’s flight data recorder and components of the voice recorder.

The FBI, NTSB, Horizon Air and its parent company Alaska Airlines, as well as the Port of Seattle and other local agencies, are all involved in the investigation of the incident. Gregoire said airport surveillance tapes have been provided to the FBI for review.

Gregoire paid tribute to the port’s partners in the investigation, and said safety was the No. 1 priority. She noted that she dropped off her husband and two daughters at Sea-Tac this morning for a vacation flight on the same type of plane that was stolen on Friday. “We think about this all the time,” Gregoire said.

She said a review of Friday’s incident indicated that “all security protocols were handled here appropriately at the airport.” Airplane departures from Sea-Tac were suspended for more than an hour, and in some cases more than two hours, as part of the safety response.

Airport employees undergo background checks that involve sorting through 10 years’ worth of criminal records, and rechecking the records every two years, she said. A year and a half ago, Sea-Tac added a policy that requires all employees to go through physical security screening, including magnetometer scans, before they enter secure areas of the airport, Gregoire said.

Gregoire said the port has added 50 employees over the past 18 months to support the beefed-up security measures. However, she acknowledged that Port of Seattle police weren’t on the airfield when the plane was stolen. “They do not have a responsibility on the airfield,” she said.

Officials from the Port of Seattle, airlines and trade associations have already started discussing how airport policies should be changed to respond to the kind of insider breach that took place on Friday. “Our team has been on the phone almost every single minute over the weekend,” Gregoire said.

The discussion rose to a new level today, on the first workday since the incident.

“We expect a national-level conversation,” Gregoire said. “We expect the federal government may have some ideas about regulation. But here at Sea-Tac we can lead, and that’s why we’re not waiting, and starting those conversations today.”

She said the response was likely to focus on operational changes as well as human factors. Russell passed all the screening requirements for his tasks as a ground service agent, which range from handling baggage to towing airplanes, but he acknowledged during his in-flight radio exchanges with controllers that he had “a few screws loose.”

“I think this is really, truly a 1-in-a-million experience,” Gregoire said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it and ensure this type of tragedy doesn’t happen again.”

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., today called for a hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee to review aviation security protocols.

“I am particularly interested in hearing how technology could play a role in making sure aircraft that are not in service cannot be used inappropriately by airport workers who may have access to them to carry out their duties,” Cantwell told Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., and ranking Democratic member Bill Nelson of Florida in a letter requesting the hearing.

Cantwell is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Aviation Operations, Safety and Security.

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