UK Airport Security for US-Bound Flights Found Severely Deficient

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

London ( - After an investigation uncovered what appeared to be major lapses in security, a prominent U.S. lawmaker is calling for transatlantic flights from the main airport in Britain's second-largest city to be suspended.

In a six-month undercover investigation, Britain's ITV News videotaped security staff at the Birmingham International Airport apparently sleeping on the job, not bothering to examine luggage being x-rayed, and leaving planes unguarded.

With the help of a whistleblower, the investigation centered around ICTS UK, a private firm contracted to provide security for Continental Airlines, Air India and other airlines using the airport.

Among the incidents recorded was a conversation between two ICTS UK supervisors, cursing Continental Airlines and expressing the wish that one of its planes would blow up.

"You know what? F--- Continental," one said. "I'm f---ing sick of Continental."

In another recorded conversation, two baggage checkers teased each other about not watching their screens as baggage was being x-rayed and laughing about how their brains were "miles away" from the task at hand.

Birmingham International Airport handles around nine million passengers a year, with regular Continental flights to Newark. Several flights a day depart for destinations in Europe and Asia.

After viewing the footage, Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said the U.S.-bound flights should be suspended until security is improved.

"If what I saw is the rule of how passenger security is conducted ... the flights should be stopped until we get better trained personnel to do the job required to guarantee the safety of passengers," he told British media.

On Wednesday, ICTS UK announced the suspension of 16 employees at the airport, and said it was installing a new drug and alcohol testing program there.

The company also said it would cooperate fully with an investigation now underway by the British Department of Transportation.

Officials at the airport issued a statement saying that all passengers passing through Birmingham Airport are also screened by the airport's own security -- which was not criticized by the program.

Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrews, said Thursday he found the footage "very depressing." While it was tough to run a proper airport security operation, he said, it was far from impossible to do so.

"It's a very onerous job but it shouldn't be impossible for an operation to maintain the constant close monitoring of staff," Wilkinson said.

Chris Yates, a British aviation security expert, told Cybercast News Service on Thursday that the problem stems from a"culture of denial."

The staff appeared to be poorly supervised and nobody in charge wanted to hear about any problems, he said.

"The whistleblower in the program, Colin Cross, said that he flagged issues up to his superiors and to the airport itself but nothing was done," he noted.

Yates pointed out that ICTS subsidiaries are contracted to other American airlines in Europe, and said he worried that similar conduct might be taking place at other airports on the continent.

"If it's happening at one, it's happening at others," he said.

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