This month marks 14 years since 9/11, yet holes in airport security remain, including the disclosure that U.S. airports have lost track of hundreds of security badges.
The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters wanted to know if it's an issue at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks and what's being done to keep passengers safe.
When we go to the airport we have to go through a TSA screening checkpoint. That's not the case for thousands of airport employees, who get to use side doors to access what in many cases are an airport's most sensitive areas.
A security identification display area, or SIDA badge, is the key for those who work at Bradley Airport, like Janine Murphy. She spoke in her capacity as an officer in the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists Region One Union.
"This badge is my passport to the airport itself," Murphy said.
SIDA badges grant access to different levels of secure areas depending on a person's job. In the wrong hands, these badges make entry into an airport's sensitive areas easier for terrorists, according to retired FAA Special Agent Brian Sullivan.
"Once you have someone behind the security systems, all your security systems are basically null and void," he explained.
Sullivan makes his criticism of airport security no secret. He sounded the alarm about Boston's Logan Airport before 9/11. He visits a memorial in his hometown regularly and remains a staunch critic of the Transportation Safety Administration, which succeeded the Federal Aviation Administration in airport security after 9/11.
"They know what needs to be done, they say what needs to be done, they just don't get it done," he said.
This year, NBC investigative units revealed more than 1,400 missing airport badges at Hartsfield Jackson Airport in Atlanta and almost 300 at San Diego International Airport over two-year spans. When asked for numbers nationwide, the TSA would not give them out, saying the information is security sensitive.
"This is a historical problem that has existed since prior to 9/11," Sullivan said.
Kevin Dillon, the executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, agreed to speak with the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters about SIDA badges, though some details were off limits.
"A lot of this information is security sensitive information," said Dillon.
When it comes to missing badges, Dillion would only say Bradley Airport is well below the threshold where airports are required to reissue them.
The Troubleshooters learned that threshold is five percent. So with roughly 4,000 badged workers at Bradley, that means the airport has fewer than 200 SIDA badges missing at any given time.
Dillon would not confirm the number, however, saying, "We don't comment on specific percentages."
The TSA told the Troubleshooters there are multiple layers of security beyond a badge, and that badges are deactivated immediately when reported lost or stolen, or when an employee is terminated.
Ken Gray, a retired FBI agent who worked out of the New Haven office, said most airports usually have at least one extra layer of security.
"Either an access code or a biometric system to allow that person holding the SIDA badge to then pass through that door," he said.
Bradley Airport does not have biometric scans for things like palms or fingerprints. Workers told the Troubleshooters they use a pin code with their SIDA badges.
Murphy said she and fellow union members get new SIDA badges every year.
"They take it very seriously at Bradley," she said.
Dillon emphasized that if someone from Bradley loses his or her SIDA badge, he or she must report it immediately and will still have to pay a fine that goes up each time it happens.
"It's not mandated by the TSA it's something that we have implemented here at Bradley to go a step beyond," Dillon said.
Following several studies of badge and other security issues, airports nationwide must now adopt new TSA requirements addressing potential "insider threat vulnerabilities," including
more random screenings of airport employees throughout the workday and reducing the number of access points employees can use to get into secure areas to "an operational minimum."
"It's something we have under review here," Dillon said. "We've conducted reviews in the past we've made changes in the past."
Sullivan remains skeptical the TSA will make sure airports tackle the badging issue.
"We've heard these solutions before," he said. "You're absolutely right, TSA, that's a good plan. Now execute it and do it on a continuous basis."
Sullivan and Gray said although the badge issue raises questions, something else concerns them as much, if not more.
An inspector general report the Troubleshooters shared earlier this year found TSA screeners across the country had a 95 percent failure rate in detecting fake bombs and weapons investigators brought to passenger checkpoints.
The Department of Homeland Security said, however, "the numbers in these reports never look good out of context, but they are a critical element in the continual evolution of our aviation security."