SEATTLE (AP) — The misadventure of a baggage handler who fell asleep in the cargo hold of a jetliner should be a warning for airlines to improve security procedures, safety experts said Tuesday.
The worker banged on the plane for help shortly after takeoff on Monday from Seattle. Pilots heard the noise and quickly returned to the airport. The worker was not injured.
The Federal Aviation Administration was investigating, but few new details emerged Tuesday about the bizarre incident at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Alaska Airlines has said the leader of a baggage-loading crew noticed the worker was missing and tried to call and text him before concluding he had gone home at the end of his 9 1/2-hour shift, which included a lunch break.
Safety experts say the crew should not have closed the cargo doors of Flight 448 to Los Angeles until they had accounted for the missing worker.
"This is a 'huh?' moment," said Thomas Anthony, director of the aviation security program at the University of Southern California and a former FAA official.
"That supervisor said, 'Huh, I wonder where Louie is?' The 'huh' is a yellow light that you need to pay attention to," he said. "The worst thing you can do is just say, 'It's probably nothing.'"
Anthony said airports are responsible for screening workers with access to planes while airlines are responsible for the security of an aircraft.
A U.S. aviation official said there is no legal requirement that airline crews check a cargo hold before every flight. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because airline security programs contain sensitive information and are not public documents.
Investigators are likely to examine how the worker got left on the plane with luggage that had been screened.
"How do you have something in the cargo bin that you don't know is there?" asked John Cox, a safety consultant and former airline pilot.
Alaska contracts for ramp work with Menzies Aviation, an English company that performs that work at numerous airports.
"Our policies and procedures ... were knowingly violated by an experienced employee who hid in the hold of an aircraft and elected to go to sleep," Menzies said in a press release. "This matter remains under internal investigation."
Menzies officials declined to release the worker's name and said no decision had been made on whether anyone would be disciplined.
The employee had worked at Menzies for 18 months and was fortunate he was trapped in a part of the plane that was pressurized and temperature-controlled for the entire flight. The worker had been off work the previous two days, the company said.
The flight carried 170 passengers and six crew members. It was more than an hour behind schedule when it eventually arrived in Los Angeles, the airline said. There was no immediate word on how much the delay cost the airline.
Such incidents are rare but have occurred.
— In 2011, a US Airways bag handler was accidentally locked inside the cargo hold of a plane at Reagan National Airport. A passenger heard the man banging on the underside of the floor and alerted a flight attendant.
— In 2009, a bag handler for JetBlue flew from New York to Boston in the cargo hold. The 21-year-old said he fell asleep and panicked when he realized the plane was in flight. He used his cellphone to call the airline during the flight.
— In 2005, a bag handler at LaGuardia Airport in New York fell asleep in the belly of a Spirit Airlines plane and woke up in Detroit.
The Seattle worker had put in a long day before dozing off in the cargo bay.
Alaska Airlines said in a statement that he was part of a four-person team loading baggage onto the flight and was scheduled to work from 5 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Flight 448 departed at 2:39 p.m. and was in the air just 14 minutes.
Medics checked the worker and found he wasn't hurt, airport spokesman Perry Cooper said. The man was also evaluated at a hospital and passed a drug test after being released.
Airlines are increasingly turning over airport jobs to contractors to save money.
The Service Employees International Union, which is trying to organize airport workers, said outsourcing has resulted in the hiring of low-wage workers who often hold more than one job and don't work for long as a baggage handler.
"These operations require a stable, well-trained workforce," said Heather Szerlag, a union official.
Koenig reported from Dallas. Nicholas K. Geranios contributed to this report from Spokane, Washington.