Plane heist at Sea-Tac exposes internal security gaps for airports across country

SEATTLE -- The Port of Seattle made it clear Monday that there were no outright security breaches at Sea-Tac International Airport when Horizon Air employee Richard Russell flew off in a stolen commercial plane.

“All security protocols were handled appropriately at the airport,” Port of Seattle Commission President Courtney Gregoire said.

Yet the unprecedented heist does reveal that aberrations can happen.

The unauthorized takeoff of a Horizon Air Q400 turboprop now has Sea-Tac and the rest of the country talking about security gaps when it comes to airport employees.

“This is truly a one in a million experience," Gregoire said. "That doesn’t mean we cannot learn from it and ensure this type of tragedy won’t happen again."

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."

Russell, who was recently added to the ground crew tow team, used a towing vehicle Friday to move the turboprop from Cargo 1 and turn it 180 degrees so that it was pointing  toward the center runway.

Cargo 1 is in a more remote area of the airport on the north side and aviation experts wonder if that helped Russell bypass other workers.

“I promise you that all airlines and airports all around the world are asking these same questions right now,” aviation expert Jon Ostrower said.

Ostrower said it is also amazing that someone without a pilot’s license figured out how to taxi a plane, take off and go on  an hourlong joy ride before crashing.

While in the air, Russell managed to pull off flips and a nose dive. He plane eventually went down in a fiery crash in Ketron Island, in the Pierce County area of the Puget Sound.

Experts say it’s common for airlines to have multiple people working together while moving a plane so the question is how did Russell tow the aircraft alone and get into the plane unnoticed.

Employees who work in secured areas are physically screened each day at Sea-Tac much like passengers are; it's a layer of security that many airports do not have.

“Physical screening like you would experience when you go through and travel through the airport,” Gregoire said.

But physical screening would not have stopped Friday’s bold takeoff.

With details outstanding on how everything unfolded, Gregoire could not talk about specific policy changes on Monday. But she said Sea-Tac airport stakeholders are talking about what more can be done.

We reached out to Alaska Airlines, which owns Horizon Air, about how many people they require to tow a plane. Alaska Airlines said they are not ready to share those details but they are providing that information to the FBI and federal regulators.