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Security added at Sea-Tac after plane theft

An Alaska Air 737 arrives at SeaTac as a flock of birds crosses.
Flickr Photo/Michael @ NW Lens (CC BY NC ND 2.0)/
An Alaska Air 737 arrives at SeaTac as a flock of birds crosses.

One in a million: That’s how Port of Seattle Commissioner Courtney Gregoire described the bizarre and tragic events on Friday night when a Horizon Air employee stole an empty Q400 turboprop at Sea-Tac Airport and crashed it on a small island in the Puget Sound.

The airport has since beefed up security at cargo locations, like the one from which the plane was stolen, according to Gregoire. She said security has also been stepped up throughout the airport.

Gregoire said, to the best of her knowledge, there were no lapses in security protocol at the airport Friday.

The incident has left people questioning how something like this can happen. Although Gregoire characterized the theft as an “aberration,” she said they can still learn from it and had started discussions with partners.

“We need to think about how we improve those protocols. What are the next steps,” Gregoire said.

She said there are a couple of lines conversations are taking: The first, how can improvements be made operationally with airlines and federal regulators? The second, how can airports properly account for what she called "the human factor"?

Gregoire said Sea-Tac has security measures in place. Employees go through a 10-year background check to get security credentials, they go through physical screening to access secure areas – similar to those passengers go through – and they have to use a fingerprint scanner.

She said the physical screening was implemented about 18 months ago.

“We’re one of the only airports in the country to do that and we took that voluntary leap,” Gregoire said. “Why do we do something like that? Because we want to always have this conversation about how to improve.”

Still, questions remain about how Richard Russell, the Horizon Air employee, was able to use a pushback tractor to turn the plane 180 degrees, get in, taxi and take off without being stopped.

When asked if Sea-Tac could require airlines to put more stringent procedures in place to start a plane or if there are temporary protocols in place to stop this from happening again, Gregoire did not have immediate answers. She said they’re having conversations with airlines, federal regulators and other airports.

When asked if it scared her that Sea-Tac had additional protocols, like the physical screening, and this still happened, she responded: “It’s not fear. It is how do we get better?”

Gregoire said she expects this incident will spur a national level conversation.

Year started with KUOW: 2015