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.
A passenger on this plane says Wilson sat in first class and the crew was doing beverage service when a flight attendant got a call. Then, the captain got the intercom and told everyone to sit down, the passenger says. The plane then started circling until landing back at CLT
— Hunter Sáenz (@Hunt_Saenz) June 8, 2021
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.