The crash of a stolen Horizon Air Bombardier Q400 turboprop Aug. 10 at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) in Washington state is drawing scrutiny from US lawmakers about aviation security and airport employee screening.

In an Aug. 13 letter to the leadership of the US Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) called on chairman John Thune (R-South Dakota) and ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Florida) to convene a hearing on the incident, writing that it “exposed an issue with our nation’s airport security protocols.”

Cantwell also remarked that the fact the incident occurred at Sea-Tac, which is notable for being one of the few large US airports to require full screening for all employees who work in the sterile area, demonstrated the need “to continually adapt security measures to meet new threats.”

She also commented that she was interested in exploring how technology could help secure aircraft that are not in service from airport workers who may have access to them as part of their duties. Previous efforts from Congress, including the House-passed Aviation Employee Screening and Security Enhancement Act, would instruct FAA to study the cost and feasibility of implementing biometric identification and other security technologies.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is leading an investigation into the incident in cooperation with the National Transportation Safety Board and several other federal and local agencies.

Lawmakers have been concerned with insider threats to aviation for years, following a series of incidents in which former or current airport employees were identified as members of terrorist groups. 

But some US airport executives worry that lawmakers could be spurred to hastily pass a fix that could lead to unintended consequences or burdensome costs. The reality is that there is no magic bullet solution to this problem, but there is one obvious path Congress could take.

The Senate could take up the Aviation Employee Screening and Security Enhancement Act, legislation sponsored by Rep. John Katko (R-New York) that passed the House in April 2017 on a 409-0 vote. It has since remained dormant in the upper chamber, which has failed to bring up the measure for a vote.

The bill aims to boost employee vetting requirements, enhance procedures governing airport issuance of security credentials and reform the Transportation Security Administration’s employee screening to be more targeted and efficient. It would also provide lawmakers with much-needed data related to the cost, feasibility and logistics of implementing full employee screening at US commercial airports.

Approximately 900,000 people work at federally supervised airports across the US, and most are able to bypass the screening checkpoints that passengers pass through. The latest incident at Sea-Tac, along with other recent examples of employees posing threats to aircraft, including Germanwings flight 9525, in which a co-pilot with a history of mental illness deliberately crashed an aircraft into a French Alps mountainside, killing all 150 onboard—illustrate the importance of mitigating insider threats to aviation.

In the case of Germanwings flight 9525, the co-pilot had been treated previously for suicidal tendencies, and had even been declared unfit to work by a doctor—critical information that was not made available to his employer because of stringent European privacy laws. 

The case of Horizon Air employee Richard Russell, who has been identified by authorities as the perpetrator of the stolen Q400 incident, is different; he had no criminal record or history of mental health issues that could have served as potential red flags. 

Sea-Tac is notable for being one of the few large US airports to require full screening for all employees who work in the airport’s sterile, airside area. Ground workers at Sea-Tac must go through criminal background checks, have their bags screened, pass through metal detectors and have their fingerprints scanned to verify their identities. 

Even if Katko’s bill had been passed by the full Congress, it is doubtful that it would have prevented this tragedy. 

Aviation security expert Jeff Price, a professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Aviation and Aerospace Science, wrote that the episode was “not a failure of the airport security system,” since responsibility for accessing aircraft falls squarely on airlines. He also expressed skepticism about whether beefed-up physical intervention or anti-hijacking procedures would have made a difference, since “there was no indication anything was going on until it was too late.”

If lawmakers want to do something, however, one obvious first step is to strengthen airport employee screening and security. Katko’s bipartisan bill, which already has the backing of the House, is sitting there for the Senate to act on.