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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Blades on Flights Incidents Show the Need for a Layered Approach to Aviation Security

Less than two weeks after an unruly passenger brandished a box cutter on board a plane, exposing failings at the checkpoint, another traveler was arrested and charged in a federal criminal complaint for carrying and using a straight edge razor blade to threaten a passenger.

A man carrying two box cutters in his carry-on luggage was able to clear a security checkpoint at Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) last month. Box cutters were banned from the very first day that TSA started screening operations at U.S. airports after terrorists used these as well as other blades to hijack flights on September 11, 2001. 

The traveler’s unruly behavior on board his flight to Tampa, Florida, in which he brandished one of the tools and threatened passengers, forced the Frontier Airlines pilot to make an emergency landing in Atlanta, Georgia.

The man’s bags had been through one of CVG’s 3D CT scanners which flagged up one of the bags for a physical search, which is when officers discovered one box cutter. The other box cutter was packed in the second bag and was not discovered. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said the checkpoint officer had not made full use of the scanner’s functionality and that the employees involved will undergo additional training. 

TSA also said the visible blades were removed from the box cutter that was found, but then returned to the passenger, which contradicts the agency’s standard operating procedure. The man was arrested on arrival by the FBI and local police in Atlanta. The FBI has law enforcement jurisdiction on board an aircraft in flight for a crime that is committed.

Less than two weeks after this incident, Merrill Darrell Fackrell, 41, of Utah was arrested and charged in a federal criminal complaint for carrying and using a straight edge razor blade to threaten a passenger during a flight on November 21.

According to the allegations contained in the complaint and law enforcement affidavit, on November 21, 2022, Fackrell departed on JetBlue Flight 871 from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York en route to Salt Lake City International Airport in Utah. Fackrell was seated in a window seat next to married passengers. During the flight, Fackrell placed his hand in front of the woman’s screen and told her to pause her movie. According to the complaint, the woman took off her headphones and realized Fackrell had his hand clutched with what appeared to her as a knife, inches from her skin at her throat/neck area. The woman’s husband went to the front of the aircraft to get assistance from the flight attendant. The woman lunged for the aisle to escape and Fackrell reached and tried to stop her by grabbing her shoulder. The object was secured and later identified as a Facon wood-handled straight edge razor with a one-to-two-inch blade.

The incidents on November 11 and 21 have exposed weaknesses at TSA as well as underlining the risk to passengers when hazardous objects that could be used as weapons make it on board a plane.

“Airport security protocols today are better than ever thanks to TSA,” Former Federal Security Director at Los Angeles International Airport and now Vice President of K2 Security Screening Group, Keith Jeffries told Homeland Security Today. “TSA is constantly looking for ways to improve the entire transportation security process. Those improvements may be adjustments to the qualifications required of its people, or tweaks to the current security processes and procedures, or finding the best technologies available to identify the threat. The bottom line is there is always room for improvement to keep the traveling public safe. When something like the Nov. 11 box cutter incident occurs, TSA will immediately analyze the incident, identify the root cause, and implement measures to strengthen any vulnerabilities discovered.”

As Keith explained, there are many layers of security to the transportation system, preflight, at the airport, and in flight. The box cutter incident is a perfect example of a layered approach to security working as it should. “It is my understanding that the box cutter was discovered by TSA in Cincinnati and the TSA agent allegedly removed the blade and returned the empty cartridge to the passenger,” Keith said. “The airport layer “found” the box cutter. It appears there may have been a blade that was missed and/or possibly an additional box cutter that may have been missed by TSA in CVG. The passenger gets on the plane and allegedly makes some type of comment about having a box cutter in his possession and his intent to harm someone. A passenger on the flight reports this to a flight attendant, who in turn reports it to the captain of the plane which led to the flight being diverted to Atlanta Airport where the suspect was arrested.  The “inflight” security layer worked. The layered security system worked.”

Speaking of TSA’s reaction to the incident, Keith said that to add clarity for all TSA officers across the country, the agency may publish a “shift brief” security notification sent out to all TSA uniformed personnel providing clarity on the box cutter incident. “There could also be a change to the TSA Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that a box cutter even without a blade is prohibited.”

Keith pointed to training, fatigue, lack of focus, or complacency as some of the factors that could cause a security officer to miss an object in screening, and says the whole team needs to be on the ball at all times. “Technology capability is tested by TSA for hundreds of hours before a piece of technology is procured and deployed to an airport for operational use by TSA personnel. In my opinion it takes the entire security team working together to remain vigilant.”

It has been suggested that TSA’s focus on explosives and firearms has left the door open for other dangerous objects to find their way onto flights. Keith disagrees. “Explosives remain the most challenging threat at a TSA checkpoint and should remain as the security priority,” he said. “There are other items such as knives, box cutters, razor blades, tools, etc… that could cause harm on an aircraft, however, the security risk is significantly lower. The CT technology currently being deployed to airports all over the country is much better at identifying all prohibited items than the original x-rays that have been in place for the last twenty years.”

We asked Keith if anything can be done to help avert a repeat of this incident. “Where possible, airports should consider purchasing the CT equipment approved by TSA instead of waiting for the federal funding and deployment schedule of this technology that could take as long as 10 to 15 years from now.”   

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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