Baggage handlers are not airport employees but must pass security screenings, officials say

By Gary Walker

A group of Los Angeles International Airport baggage handlers arrested last week for allegedly stealing electronics, jewelry and other items from checked luggage were hired by several different companies but had each passed multiple background checks, according to airport officials.

A joint task force of Los Angeles and airport police arrested six baggage handlers on March 27. Fourteen others were detained by investigators, who served 25 search warrants at suspects’ homes, LAX Assistant Police Chief Michael Hyams said.

The task force is continuing to investigate leads and may question additional suspects, Hyams said.

Baggage handlers do not directly work for the airport but are contract employees hired by airlines through a variety of third-party companies, LAX Public Relations Director Nancy Castles said.

“Passengers’ baggage is the jurisdiction and control of the airlines, since passengers are customers of the airlines and they check in their bags with airline staff,” Castles said.

“LAX does not hire any contractors for baggage-handling or cargo-handling. As many as 15 companies subcontract with airlines serving Los Angeles International Airport,” although some handlers are directly employed by airlines, Castles said.

Menzies Aviation, which maintains offices on airport property, is one of the contractors who supply cargo-handling services to various airlines.

Some of the baggage handlers arrested last week were Menzies employees, prompting the company to issue a statement pledging cooperation with law enforcement.

“We believe the actions under investigation were limited to a handful of employees, acting independently. Menzies never tolerates the theft or destruction of property and requires all of its employees to conduct themselves in an ethical manner and in accordance with all laws and regulations,” the statement read.

“Every Menzies employee undergoes a thorough company, Los Angeles Airport and U.S Customs and Border Protection background check prior to employment, and is trained extensively to perform their jobs safely, efficiently and with integrity,” the statement continued.

The federal Homeland Security and Justice departments also conduct criminal record checks and security assessments for what the airport calls ‘badged’ employees, which include luggage handlers, Castles said. The airport’s badge office is then notified if the applicant is eligible or ineligible to receive a badge.

Hyams confirmed that everyone who works at the airport is required to pass security clearance.

“People who come to work at the airport generally have good records,” Hyams said.

Two of the six baggage handlers arrested had outstanding warrants, but those warrants were for issues subsequent to their hiring, Hyams said.

Menzies has nearly 1,000 employees working at LAX, most of them baggage handlers, company spokeswoman Maya Pagoda said.

Pagoda wasn’t immediately sure how many airlines hire baggage handlers from Menzies but said most of the company’s baggage handlers work in Terminal 6 and the Tom Bradley International Terminal.

Airlines operating out of Terminal 6 include United, Alaska and Great Lakes.

A surge in theft reports had prompted investigators to hone in on the Bradley terminal and a few other areas, according to statements by LAX Police Chief Patrick Gannon.

The discovery of the alleged airport theft ring has prompted Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles) to question whether the nation’s sixth-largest airport is relying too heavily on contract workers and should take more direct responsibility in hiring.

“I really do have some concerns about subcontractors in general,” said Waters, whose district includes LAX. “This business that [airlines] can get everything done cheaper by subcontracting everything out and the airport losing control of [those workers] is something that I don’t like.”

Hyams said no screening system is infallible.

“It’s like any employment group. There are always people that succumb to temptation, and there are always those few who get through no matter how good the screening process is,” Hyams said.

But Waters said the arrests should spark a conversation among LAX officials about the use of contract workers and how to better protect passenger belongings.

“I want the airport and the airlines to take responsibility for making sure not only that we’re safe but also that our luggage is safe. It’s really disturbing to know that people are stealing from passengers,” Waters said. “And I hope that this is going to cause discussions about subcontractors and see if there’s some willingness by the airport to take more responsibility.”

The recent arrests are the second time that LAX baggage carriers have come under scrutiny this year.

In February, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health opened an investigation into working conditions after a luggage handler employed by Menzies Aviation was killed by a moving luggage cart on Feb. 21 at LAX.