HOUSTON – For millions of flyers at George Bush Intercontinental Airport, getting the once-over by security screeners is just part of traveling.
“Taking off your shoes, taking off everything that’s metal,” explained Karina Sanchez as she waited for her checked bags to arrive.
“We have to take off the cap,” said Carmen Bonilla of Houston. “You can’t wear a baseball cap.”
For flyers, everything gets checked by security.
And we mean everything.
“I have a plate in my hip,” explained Beverly Smith of Houston. “So sometimes it makes sounds. I don’t like that, but it happens to me.”
But while you wait in line, the I-Team found just one floor below, plenty of people bypassing that screening.
Our cameras watched as people carried bags, bottles filled with liquid, and wheeled carts into the most sensitive areas of the airport without anyone taking a look.
That’s because they’re among the 27,000 workers with access to secure areas of the airport and unlike passengers, there are no federal or local rules requiring all workers to go through a checkpoint before entering those secure areas.
Flyers tell us they had no idea.
“Wow, that’s crazy,” said Courtney Williams. “They could be upset, come to the airport, (and) just do any type of thing.”
“Just because they work here, doesn’t mean they can’t do harm,” said Kali Whitfield.
But Carl Newman, General Manager of IAH, says employees get a different kind of once over.
“They go through a criminal history, background check,” explained Newman. “And they also go through a security threat assessment that is administered by the Transportation Security Administration.”
But how well is that working?
Rolin Escober passed all those checks.
But agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security say on multiple occasions last year, Escober used his employee access card to smuggle heroin through the airport in exchange for cash.
Escober pleaded guilty to federal charges and landed a nine year prison sentence.
“Once someone gets one of these access cards, if they then decide to commit a crime, they can do it,” admitted Brian Moskowitz, Special Agent in Charge, Homeland Security Investigations.
Just ask Juan Alvarenga.
After passing his background check, Alvarenga got his access card.
Now he’s charged with helping to steal thousands of dollars in electronics from checked bags.
He’s pleaded not guilty, and his attorney refused to let him answer the I-Team’s questions after a recent court appearance.
But we wondered, with cases like these involving workers at the airport, why not search everybody who walks through the doors?
“There is a balance between keeping the facility operational, and the very real security threat assessments and procedures we have in place,” said Newman.
He believes putting workers through the same security as passengers would bring the airport to its knees.
But aviation security expert Jeff Price says, when it comes to airport safety, the loophole that allows workers to avoid screenings should be closed.
“What you're seeing is not an airport security, it's an aviation security issue,” said Price, an aviation professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. “I think as screening checkpoints get more efficient, as we can move people through there, then we need to take another look at this issue,”
In the meantime, Homeland Security has a warning for workers.
“We respect that the vast majority of airport workers are doing the right thing and care about public safety,” said Moskowitz. “But if you're one of them that decides that personal gain is more important than the public's safety, we're there, we're going to come after you and we're going to make sure you lose that access and you lose your freedom. “
Newman stresses that even though workers don’t pass through security checkpoints, there is other behind-the-scenes security monitoring workers.
Currently, both Miami and Orlando’s airports require that everyone working in secure areas go through security screenings.
A spokesperson for Orlando International Airport tells the I-Team screening the airport’s employees cost about $3.2 million a year.
If you see something suspicious and you can report it to Homeland Security by calling 1-866-DHS-2ICE.