‘Fly at Your Own Risk’

Jan 13, 2008  •  Post A Comment

When an American Airlines jet received a bomb threat on a scrap of paper at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 2005, airline officials did not bother to call security agents. Instead, they had the cleaning crew search the plane.
A flight attendant for the airline contacted Dave Savini, investigative reporter at WBBM-TV (CBS 2) in Chicago, who began an ongoing investigation into security measures at O’Hare. The original six-part, hidden-camera series, “Fly at Your Own Risk,” is one of this year’s duPont Award winners.
“The flight attendant who came to us risked her job to go on camera,” Mr. Savini said. “She told us, ‘This cleaning crew comes in the back gate with me.’ She started wondering about the background checks of people coming in that gate.”
Mr. Savini contacted the private company that controls security for O’Hare, but no one there would talk to him. Acting on a hunch, Mr. Savini went to the public alley behind the security company’s office, climbed in and started filling trash bags.
“I did this for two months,” Mr. Savini said, “and the deeper I dug, the more I realized what was at hand.” He collected “volumes of documents they were throwing away,” including copies of birth certificates and residency cards.
He also collected internal memos stating badges were missing after employees had quit or been terminated, and other memos “dated much later” saying “we need to call the Department of Aviation” about those missing badges.
Under the Freedom of Information Act, Mr. Savini and producer Michele Youngerman applied for information on the missing badges, asking for data back to 2004.
“We got a [disc] showing there were 3,700-plus badges missing,” said Mr. Savini, “including names of employees, FBI agents, Homeland Security people who had all lost their badges.”
The badges, he said, are the only identification required for entry through the back gate at O’Hare.
WBBM notified the Chicago Department of Aviation about the information it had received, and “within minutes” the station got a call from a Washington attorney requesting that the station return the disc. “We refused,” said Mr. Savini, “but we agreed not to use the names, just the [missing badge] numbers.”
WBBM discovered that one security company had 130 individuals with temporary badge access to the planes who had submitted fraudulent information to obtain badges, including Social Security numbers of deceased people. The badges are the only identification required for back-gate entrance by airline and airport employees, including pilots, baggage handlers and security personnel, and “nobody’s even checking whether the applicant has a valid Social [Security number],” Mr. Savini said.
The series led to a congressional investigation and investigations by the Illinois state legislature and the Transportation Safety Administration, which increased its random security screenings of airport employees. But Mr. Savini continues to investigate the rear entrance.
“If you don’t police that fundamental area, the people who hold the keys to the back gate,” he said, “then what good is all that security at the front?”
Credits: Dave Savini, reporter; Michele Youngerman, producer; Mike Klingele, Bond Li, Jerry Pedroza, photographers and editors; Marda LeBeau, executive producer; Carol Fowler, vice president and director of news; Joe Ahern, president and general manager


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