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FocusPoint in the News
Peter Martin of FocusPoint International quoted in Sun Sentinel article ‘Fort Lauderdale airport shooting reveals security flaws’

Until he turned his gun on tourists, Esteban Santiago hadn’t broken any laws flying to Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport with a semi automatic handgun and bullets.

No rules were bent or ignored, no red flags raised.

Security experts and public officials say the shooting — the first of its kind in America — exposes weaknesses in a system designed to protect travelers on airplanes, but not necessarily in airports.

Until now, no one in America has ever gunned down airport travelers after flying with a checked weapon. But under airline and federal aviation rules, experts say, an airport attack like Santiago’s could easily happen again.

“It’s no more surprising than someone walking up to you on the street and shooting you,” said Jeff Price, an author, security trainer and professor at the Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Aviation & Aerospace Science.

Santiago is accused of killing five tourists and injuring six other people in the baggage claim area of Terminal 2, after checking only a 9 mm handgun in Alaska and flying one-way across the country to carry out the attack.

Video shows Santiago opening fire in an area where the public can freely come and go without a security check. He told the FBI he emptied one magazine, reloaded and emptied the other, shooting the first people he encountered. Law enforcement officers were about one minute away, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel has said.

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, airports have been wrapped in a cocoon of safety regulations. That might give travelers a false sense of security, Price said.

For complete coverage of the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting, click here.

Travelers can’t take more than 3.4 ounces of shampoo on an airplane; theirbodies are scanned by high-tech machines; their hands are sometimes swabbed for bomb-making ingredients; and their bags are sniffed by trained German shepherds.

The areas of the terminal beyond the security checkpoint are protected because anything there could end up on a plane. In 2016, 3,391 guns were seized when people tried to carry them onto airplanes in the United States, according to Transportation Security Administration data. Four out of five were loaded.

Yet, the federal government leaves it up to airlines and local or state legislators to set rules for public areas like baggage claim.

In Florida, for example, concealed weapons can’t be carried in airports. But a gun in a case is fine, and people entering the baggage claim area aren’t screened, anyway.

The policies remain in place even after previous shootings proved airports to be vulnerable. In November 2013, gunman Paul Ciancia took a Smith & Wesson semi-automatic rifle into a busy terminal at Los Angeles International Airport and opened fire, killing a TSA agent and wounding three others.

Ciancia was not traveling. But no major airline prevents someone from entering with a gun as baggage, checking it and picking it up at the end of a flight.

Delta spokesman Michael Thomas in Atlanta declined to discuss specifics about the ticket agent’s encounter with Santiago in Anchorage. But in general, he said, a traveler with a gun would approach the airline counter and sign an affidavit declaring the weapon is unloaded.

Following standard procedures, Santiago then would have opened the gun case and placed a Delta bright orange placard inside, declaring “FIREARM UNLOADED.”

The gun must travel in a hard case and must be locked, with only the traveler carrying the key to open it at the destination, according to TSA regulations. The case can be placed inside another piece of luggage, but the federal complaint against Santiago says he checked only the gun box.

The checked gun would be turned over to the TSA to be scanned for explosives, then stowed on the airplane.

Airlines require no gun permit when checking a gun for domestic travel, no proof of gun ownership, and no permit to use the gun in the arrival city or state, Thomas said.

“All these details are applied the same regardless of airline,” Thomas said. “We’re just applying the federal regulations.”

Gun policies posted on domestic airline websites show their rules differ from one another only slightly. Some airlines specify how ammunition is packed or how much it can weigh. Airports, too, generally follow the same guidelines when it comes to travelers with guns. Travelers must heed the gun laws in the states they travel to, but many states honor another state’s gun permits.

Jesse Davis, chief of police at the Anchorage airport, said his agency had no contact with Santiago and detected no sign that he planned violence.

“As far as the question about flying with just a gun case,” the chief wrote in an email, “there would be no way of knowing whether he had a traveling companion and that person had checked luggage under his/her name that belonged to both of them, or whether the other person may be holding onto the carry-on bags while the other traveler is declaring the handgun. So, it would not raise any red flags or warning signs.”

Santiago would have then boarded the flight from far-flung Alaska to balmy South Florida, knowing his Walther 9mm semi-automatic handgun and two magazines were tucked securely aboard.

Barring a baggage mix-up, Santiago could be assured his gun would emerge on the conveyor belt at Fort Lauderdale airport’s Terminal 2, around the lunch hour, as TSA announcements or a welcome message from Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief blared from the speakers.

Retrieving the gun was as easy as plucking it off the baggage belt. The government does not monitor how weapons are returned to passengers at the end of a flight.

“The reuniting of checked baggage with passengers is the responsibility of the airlines,” TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said.

After the shooting on Jan. 6, the broadcast message soon turned dark, with a female voice warning, “There has been a report of an emergency. Proceed calmly to the nearest exit and leave the building immediately.” An alarm sounded as pandemonium broke out.

The shooting has brought new scrutiny to airport security, but one security expert cautioned against focusing on airports, given that the attack could have occurred in any busy place.

“If the person wasn’t able to carry it on the plane, would it have stopped the shooting? No,” said Peter Martin, CEO of the international security firm FocusPoint International and a Plantation resident. “It would have changed the location, for certain. But he’s not going to just go home and watch TV.”

John Parrott, director of the Anchorage airport, said the employees appeared to have gone by the book in Santiago’s case. Whether the rules themselves are adequate, he said, is beyond his purview.

“It appears that in this incident the required procedures were followed,” Parrott said by email. “As to whether or not those processes are adequate, that is part of the national discussion that is taking place.”