American Airlines Cancun Flight Turned Back Because Passenger On Board Skipped Security Screening

Updated with new information about the incident.

This morning American Airlines flight AA881 from Charlotte to Cancun was forced to return to Charlotte – before heading back out to Cancun. Multiple reports of the incident suggested that a passenger on board hadn’t cleared TSA security. It turns out to have been a former employee of American Airlines’ wholly-owned regional carrier Piedmont.

Initially the captain announced to passengers that there was “something wrong with a flap” once they’d gotten word that this happened. Once back in Charlotte, police boarded the aircraft and removed the former employee from the first class cabin. The aircraft was searched by police and dogs before being permitted to depart again.

The Airbus A321, registration N508AY, finally made it to Cancun nearly three hours late. I reached out to American Airlines, and spokesperson Sarah Jantz shared,

American Airlines flight 881 returned to Charlotte shortly after takeoff following reports of a potential security concern. Upon arrival, Charlotte Mecklenburg Police (CMPD) met the flight and escorted one customer off the aircraft. The flight departed for Cancun at 10:40 a.m. with all other customers following a precautionary maintenance inspection and security sweep.

According to Charlotte airport police,

Earlier today, a former airline employee was observed by a badged employee bypassing the security process and gaining illegal entry to the secure side of the airport. Airport security responded and began a search for an individual. The individual boarded an aircraft with a valid boarding pass. The airline was notified and the aircraft returned to CLT where the person was taken into custody. CLT is working with our law enforcement and airline partners as the investigation continues.

I was first to report the incident on Tuesday before it was clear who the individual was (e.g. whether it was a current or former employee, and whether they’d worked for American itself or for a regional carrier owned by American). I had contacted TSA for comment on how this person made it onto the aircraft without first clearing security, and then how the issue was identified. They told me they are “looking into this now.”

Last summer American Airlines warned employees not to skip TSA security while traveling after having to fire their General Manager for Cleveland used his security badge to bypass TSA screening and board a flight and had someone else skip security to bring him his laptop charger.

On Tuesday I wondered whether the individual was Secure Identification Display Area (SIDA) badge holder, in which case they’d have been extensively vetted including criminal history check, checking against the Terrorist Screening Center’s watchlist, and recurrent checks against other databases. TSA also applies the FBI’s “Rap Back” recurrent vetting to SIDA badge holders.

If it was an employee who traveled without clearing security using a SIDA badge, then there really wouldn’t have been a meaningful security risk and passengers had their travel plans disrupted for little security benefit. The TSA identified 46 cases where someone used a SIDA badge to skip security in a year for reasons other than carrying out their duties and concluded not a single one of these involved a security risk.

Of course it could have simply been abuse of Known Crewmember privileges, for personal travel on an international trip.

In any case, an extra three hours in a 190-seat configuration legacy US Airways Airbus A321 with slimlime seats and without seat back video isn’t how most of the passengers on board wanted to start off their Cancun vacation.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. All it takes is one disgruntled employee to sneak a weapon on board. This is the protocol for a reason. But, yes I agree that this is a major annoyance for the vacationing passengers.

  2. “If it was an employee who traveled without clearing security, and certainly if it was a SIDA bade holder, then there was never a meaningful security risk and passengers had their travel plans disrupted for little security benefit.”

    Then again, there was that story posted just the other day about 150 Quantas employees being tied to organized crime. Weren’t they background checked? And IF one wanted to breach security, wouldn’t you pick a recruit who had a clean sheet?

    Better safe than sorry. I really don’t want some bureaucrat going “It’s probably nothing…” There are times when we ALL need to follow the rules, even if it is inconvenient. Blame the person who breached them, not TSA or AA.

  3. Ridiculous just like every government policy, agency, or agent. There is no logic to having a flight return because a passenger didn’t clear the security theatre screening before flying.


    If a person meant to do harm, he or she would have done it. It’s illogical to have a flight return because of something that would have happened already once in the air. There is no sensibility in government; absolutely none.

  4. In the 1980’s or 90’s, there was a PSA employee (PSA > USAirways > USAirways(America West) > American) who shot the pilots dead. He was mad at the airline. All the passengers died in the crash of the LAX-SFO flight, including several Chevron executives, causing a change in some companies policies regarding employees traveling together.

    I once unknowingly evaded airport security at IAH Houston. That was late in the 20th century, more than 20 years ago. Oops. Not on purpose. I was just following instructions on where to walk.

  5. It only takes one disgruntled employee to bring a gun, or someone to be blackmailed into bringing a bomb. What a hilariously ignorant comment to say there was no risk, after the fact. Background checks don’t catch everything, as evidenced by numerous security leaks and double agents over the years in the intelligence community.

  6. Badge holders have been deemed to be low enough risk to access the secure part of the airport without screening. And TSA has said every time there’s ever been an incident of a badge used for an improper purpose there’s been zero threat.

    In this case the plane was already in the air and remained in the air for the time it took to turn back, plenty of opportunity for someone to have done something if they were going to.

    There’s zero reason to believe that any threat would have been thwarted turning back.

  7. A tricky issue. We need something but it may have gone much too far, which is what governments do as their missions “creep” along and expand their reach. Specifically, the Chamber of Horrors is a worthless insult to everyone and brutalizes society, making it okay on suspicion to strip search you, and you, and you. I avoid it with Pre-check, having gotten tired of TSOs screaming at me when I widely grinned and sighed as they patted me down, but if everybody just refused to enter one they’d be gone in a week.

  8. “If a person meant to do harm, he or she would have done it. It’s illogical to have a flight return because of something that would have happened already once in the air.”

    Um… terrorism doesn’t always happen at the start of a flight. Sometimes, it happens in the middle or at the end, to crash into a prominent building at the destination city. Sometimes it happens once the plane crosses an international border (to get air traffic controllers and military from the destination’s government – or any other government along the way – to respond to the incident rather than the origin country’s air traffic controllers and military.

    That RyanAir flight that was hijacked by the Belarus government a few weeks ago happened while the plane was on descent into Lithuania. That Lockerbie bombing happened over Scotland on a flight from Germany to the US. The Malaysian flight where the pilot committed suicide went for a few hours before making a sharp turn into the Indian Ocean.

    If there’s no swift and severe punishment for breaking protocols, protocols will be broken. Sucks for the other passengers, but nobody knew what the unscreened passenger would do a few hours later in flight.

  9. There have been published violations of security screenings that involved criminal activity. It doesn’t matter whether anyone deems a SIDA badge holder to be low risk or not. It is currently US law that all passengers must pass thru TSA screening.
    I’m not sure the point of arguing otherwise.

    AA’s operation has been a complete disaster for the past several days thanks to tstorms esp. over/around DFW so this is just an * for most AA passengers.

  10. Pilots and flight attendants can bypass security by using Known Crewmember (KCM) if available even when they’re not working (don’t have to be in uniform) but only on domestic flights. If it was a crew member who boarded an international flight using KCM they probably won’t be fired but will definitely get a life time ban from ever using KCM. We all know the rules, can’t plead ignorance. Btw, a crewmember using KCM may or may not be a SIDA badge holder.

  11. I was a SIDA badge holder because the agency that I worked covered EMS at our local international airport. There are different levels to the badging process. I was fingerprinted, various background checks, had to take a test every year during my birthday month, as well as be photographed for the badge. I was given codes for certain doors and was permitted to drive on the secured side, as well. That being said, while traveling out of uniform, SIDA badging does allow for employee checkpoints rather than standard TSA checkpoints at most airports. The guy knows the rules. His entitlement screwed up alot of people’s plans.

  12. And TSA has said every time there’s ever been an incident of a badge used for an improper purpose there’s been zero threat.

    So your argument is that because something hasn’t happened previously it won’t happen now?

  13. An employee who would knowingly flout the rules suffers from an entitlement problem or has got to be deranged. And if he’s deranged, he’s a security risk. What a disgusting story about the inability of ‘the authorities’ to protect us all. I suppose they think that having to endure security at an airport is violating their rights.

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