Alaska Air employee who stole plane that crashed exposes aviation's security blind spots

Key Points
  • The Horizon Air worker stole the plane Friday night from Seattle-Tacoma Airport before crashing at a nearby island.
  • The rare incident highlights how the aviation industry is sometimes challenged to provide access as well as ensure security.
A file photo of the Alaska Airlines plane stolen from Seattle-Tacoma Airport. 
JK |

The theft of an Alaska Air Group turboprop plane by an employee whom authorities described as "suicidal" underscores a challenge in the aviation sector: Balancing access with security.

The stolen plane crashed on an island in Puget Sound, killing the employee about an hour after he took off from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The 29-year-old man — identified as Richard Russell, according to NBC News — had authorized access to the company's planes to perform his job, executives said.

The fully-credentialed, ground-services worker was responsible for loading and unloading passengers' luggage, tidying the aircraft and worked on a team that towed planes, the company said.

Access to planes came with the job, even though Alaska's CEO Brad Tilden said the man's work had ended for the day and the aircraft, and the 76-seat Bombardier Q400 turboprop plane of regional unit Horizon Air, was not scheduled to fly that evening.

"Yesterday's events will push us to learn what we can from this tragedy so that we can help prevent it from ever happening again, at our airline or any other," Tilden said at a news conference Saturday.

'Not designed' for these kinds of incidents

Airlines and airports need workers to have ready access to their equipment and the airfield, which is essential to their work. The unusual incident showed the limits of securing facilities, as well as in monitoring employees and addressing potential mental health issues, experts told CNBC.

"The physical security layers in the airport are not designed to protect (against) this," said Jeff Price, an aviation security consultant, professor at the Metropolitan State University in Denver and a former airport ramp worker. Some measures to avoid this kind of incident are in the hiring process and psychological evaluations, Price said, while those are not always foolproof.

Executives said the employee had passed background checks, and that he did not have a pilot license.

The employee used a tow to turn the plane around 180 degrees before he taxied to a runway, the company said. After taking off, made dramatic loops in the air before it crashed, video shot by onlookers showed.

"We don't know how he learned to do that," said Horizon's CEO Gary Beck, about how the employee came to operate the aircraft, noting the ignition on a plane isn't like that of a car. A Q400 captain at another airline, who declined to provide a name because the person is not authorized to speak to the media, told CNBC that the process of starting up the plane is complex.

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 is seen from the air, Saturday, Aug. 11, 2018, near Steilacoom, Wash. 
Ted S. Warren | CNBC

Getting one of nearly two-dozen steps wrong in starting up the airplane would immediately derail it, this person said. However, opening aircraft doors is far less challenging, Price and the captain noted.

Authorities have made changes to better screen pilots for mental health problems, after a pilot intentionally crashed a Germanwings jet into a mountainside in March 2015, killing all 150 on board. The European Commission last month adopted new rules, which take effect in 2020, that require airlines to psychologically screen pilots.

The Q400 captain who spoke to CNBC and flies in North America, said that routine health screenings since that the Germanwings crash do include some questions about pilots' mental state. However, the incident on Friday is a rare and difficult issue to address.

"This isn't something the industry plans for protecting against," Price said.