- - Friday, September 19, 2014

LOS ANGELES—That innocent plastic plate of what looks like sausage and eggs on your morning trans-con flight to Los Angeles could actually be the next big threat in the skies.

According to a whistle blower report released last week by an airline caterers union, if there is a gap in the security that’s defining so much of the flying experience these days, it is probably not in that 3-ounce bottle of moisturizer that gets through the X-ray belt. It’s the food in the galleys.

The report issued by Unite Here, a labor union headquartered in New York and representing some 12,000 airline catering workers in the U.S., showed in more than a few findings that food companies servicing the airlines may make up the weakest link in airline security. According to a survey of 400 airline catering employees from 13 kitchens serving 10 U.S. airports:

• Airline catering trucks are often left parked on public streets or in parking lots with gates open, especially at off-airport properties.

• Only 33 percent of catering employees who responded to the survey reported that security is tight in their kitchens or that security rules are always followed.

• One in four respondents said an unauthorized person could enter their kitchen, and 24 percent said a foreign object could be added to a cart destined for a plane.

• In 2013 airline catering kitchens logged an annual turnover rate of 44 percent – 23 percent of kitchens surveyed reported turnover rates of 75 percent. For comparison, TSA agent turnover rate in 2011 was just 6.4 percent.

• Forty-four percent of kitchen sites viewable on Google Street View showed open gates or unattended trucks. Unite Here members took pictures for the report that showed open fences and gates around kitchens and unattended catering trucks. Some kitchens had no gates at all.

• Fifty percent of drivers reported incomplete or rushed inspections of trucks and cargo leaving the caterer.

• Sixty-four percent of respondents said they don’t have enough staff to work safely and securely. Short-term employees are frequently brought in to fill the spots and often work without the requisite badge identification.

Indeed, incidents of food safety, specifically food tainted with dangerous bacteria due to unhealthy food preparation practices, are not unheard of and have even resulted in death. In 2011, the family of Othon Cortes of Miami launched a wrongful death suit against American Airlines when, after consuming the chicken meal on a flight from Barcelona to New York, Cortes became extremely ill and died on the connecting flight from JFK to Miami. The charges alleged that catering companies allowed the food to become contaminated with Clostridium perfringens bacteria.

Bloomberg news reported in 2011 that during an inspection of Atlanta-based Delta jets, U.S. health inspectors found rat droppings. Reports of inbound flights from other countries seeing incidents of food sickness on board are not uncommon, especially as each country is responsible for managing its own airline food safety protocol.

TSA has gone on record saying they don’t specify their catering rules, “so as to not violate the integrity of these measures. TSA conducts ongoing inspections to ensure airlines and contractors comply with these security requirements.”

The report recommends:

• A TSA presence in any kitchen where meals are prepared or plated.

• A requirement that subcontractors be certified.

• An immediate halt to temporary labor in the industry.

TSA did not ignore these findings. It provided the following statement about the Unite Here report:

TSA is aware of the report. The security of airline catering is a top priority for our agency. The TSA has a rigorous inspection and testing program that continuously ensures compliance with all applicable TSA regulations. The agency conducts inspections on a regular basis in order to enhance aviation security and ensure the safety of the traveling public.

TSA employs multiple layers of security to protect the traveling public. On board aircraft, these layers include reinforced cockpit doors, Federal Air Marshals, armed pilots and a vigilant public, as well as many others, both seen and unseen.”

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