Hundreds of airport workers, contractors getting airside access not screened for weapons, explosives - audit

Newshub can reveal a major audit by an overseas regulator has found serious failures with aviation security at all of New Zealand's international airports. 

Up until now, hundreds of airport workers, contractors, and visitors getting airside access haven't been screened for weapons or explosives and airports are now scrambling to boost security. 

"The failures we have been told about are very significant. Basically, no non-flying passengers or crew are screened," said Captain Andrew Ridling, president of the New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association.

Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown international airports have failed to meet international standards, set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). It follows a visit by ICAO to New Zealand.  

Newshub understands the concerns arise from a fear that workers could access the tarmac unchecked, leaving planes vulnerable to terrorism or smuggling operations. 

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said it's acting on the issues. 

"So we are implementing and making improvements in terms of some of the gaps that we identified," said Mike Hill, deputy chief executive of aviation security and infrastructure at CAA.

Air New Zealand refused to answer questions. But a memo from Air NZ, obtained by Newshub, revealed sudden changes to security as a result of the failures. 

According to the memo, new security arrangements came into force on Monday and mean all staff going airside will be subject to screening. This includes the use of metal detector wands, pat downs, and explosive detector tests. Personal belongings could also be X-rayed or hand-searched.

The memo states all workers, including contractors, visitors, and airport workers getting access to the tarmac or planes, will be "screened for weapons, firearms and explosives".

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Newshub shared the information with pilots, who said since they get screened, they assumed everyone else did too. 

"That's where our concern sits. We didn't know it wasn't happening. And we had an expectation that it was happening," Ridling said.

"I'm shocked and surprised."

Ridling told Newshub an independent inquiry into the country's aviation security is needed.

Access points to the tarmac are being reduced and new checkpoints set up at all international airports. 

Pilots said the absence of proper checks has left travellers vulnerable to illegal behaviour or attacks. 

"Drug trafficking, dangerous goods, explosives, weaponry. Anything could be put on board an aeroplane, which is something we don't like to see," Ridling said.

Hill said they have boosted security.

"What we have done is we have amplified some of the screening in order to protect and ensure the integrity of the international aircraft."

Hill said workers did go through a "degree of checking" as those getting airside access do have airport identification cards. He said the changes being introduced is to prevent significant harm to people or international aircrafts from "threat items". 

But the National Party's transport spokesperson Simeon Brown said it isn't good enough.

"It seems like there's one standard for people who are on the plane and another standard for people working on the plane when it's on the ground. So I think this is a failure of our regulatory authority CAA."

Transport Minister Kerian McAnulty said he's been reassured that CAA is working closely with ICAO on its recommendations to enhance safety.

Wellington and Christchurch airports refused to answer Newshub's questions. 

Queenstown Airport told Newshub it doesn't make public details of its security procedures at the airport. 

But a spokesperson confirmed changes had occurred, saying safety and security are a priority. 

"We recently supported the Aviation Security Service to ensure that required measures are in place at Queenstown Airport." 

Auckland Airport said safety and security is its top priority. 

"Auckland Airport is working quickly to operationalise all changes recommended by the CAA, following the International Civil Aviation Organisation audit," a spokesperson said.