Grand Theft Airline

Airline veteran Tony Randgaard takes you behind the curtain for two airline armored car heists that rocked the world’s largest airlines.

On any given day, there are dozens of secured cargo shipments containing millions of dollars in cash crisscrossing the U.S. The shipments weigh hundreds of pounds and move in the cargo holds of the nation’s major airlines. With a staggering 32 billion pieces of currency in circulation, the Federal Reserve and the nation’s financial institutions face the daunting task of retiring and replenishing those cash reserves. A global security company like Brinks garners almost $3.5 billion per year to provide the armored cars, vaults and logistics to protect those priceless shipments. It has been said that companies serving the Federal Reserve have equipment so delicate and precise, that when a bag of cash is weighed at destination the company can detect the absence of even one $20, $50 or $100 bill.

And when you delve into it, shipping currency, gold or jewels by air would clearly be the safest mode available. Since 9/11, airports have been locked up tighter than Fort Knox and anyone getting on to the tarmac has been finger printed and vetted like a presidential candidate. When the major security companies plan shipments, the painstaking secrecy employs a need-to-know system transcribed from Pentagon procedures. In fact, when a glib United Airlines pilot detoured from the usual “on the left you can see the Grand Canyon” script and announced:

“You are on a very special flight. There is more than $5 million dollars in cash riding underneath you in the cargo hold”— all heck broke loose. The security company quickly suspended United from handling currency shipments. And the embargo lasted almost a year.

So it is safe to say that what happened to Delta Airlines at JFK International Airport was extraordinary.  

On September 26th, a Delta ground services handler allegedly snatched a bag of $260,000 in cash from the cargo of flight 1225 at JFK. The loot was culled from the multi-million dollar proceeds returning from a cruise ship excursion. The unusual circumstances related in the police report reveal that the Delta employee had enough advance knowledge of the shipment to enlist his partner to drive to the outskirts of the airport and take a hand off of the bag. It was also clear that the employee was able to handle the cash bags out of sight of security company guards.

When working for the airlines,  I developed Continental and then United Airlines secured shipment programs, the cornerstone of the cash management was getting the armored car guards screened, fingerprinted and approved for airport tarmac access. That enabled the armored car to drive into the airport’s secured area and deliver the valuables right to the baggage belt. The guards would then observe the loading and would leave the aircraft only after the cargo and baggage hold doors were sealed for takeoff. Make no mistake. Something went very wrong with the Delta cash loading.

After discussing the Delta shipment with two industry security executives, it is clear that this theft appeared to be a case of apathy and failed procedures. I heard the reaction: “They thought that nothing bad ever happens on these shipments and nothing ever will.”

The Daring Dutch Job

When I arrived at Amsterdam International Airport-Schiphol in February of 2005, I was stunned by the size of the place. Our taxi from one of its six runways took almost a half hour. The grounds were flat as a pancake and we rolled past canals and even bike paths on our way to the terminal.

I would spend the next few days working in the inner sanctum of KLM Cargo, observing and absorbing their meticulous handling and procedures. KLM had long been a pioneer in air cargo. Whether it was transporting valuables, horses or flowers the carrier invested in training, equipment and special warehouses that were the envy of the industry. By the third day, I had learned the lay of the land around the cargo complex. In fact, my Hoofddorp hotel was so close that I simply walked along the bike paths to work.

Less than two weeks later, KLM would suffer the largest jewel heist in history—and the thieves would abandon their getaway car within blocks of my hotel. The haul of uncut diamonds was so large, estimated at $72 million; that the four henchmen could not carry a large portion of it and left $29 million worth of gems in the getaway vehicle.

Unlike the JFK crime, the KLM heist was a very sophisticated operation. The gang worked in cahoots with at least two KLM employees, acquiring KLM uniforms and access to a KLM Cargo vehicle. In a vast airport of 7000 acres populated with hundreds of KLM flights, it’s not surprising that they could drive undetected through the airport’s secured areas. Once inside the fences, the gang intercepted a KLM armored car on its way to an Antwerp flight. The KLM guards quickly surrendered in the face of an arsenal of weapons. Then the thieves commandeered the armored car and headed to the south border of the airport.

Don’t Do the Crime If You Can’t Do the Time

For JFK International Airport, the Delta heist adds another page to its storied legacy of airline robberies. The fabled Lufthansa Heist in 1978 yielded a bounty of $5 million in cash and $1 million in jewels, with most of it never recovered. The job was run by the Lucchese crime family and later commemorated on the big screen in Good Fellas.

And then in 2013, a Federal Reserve shipment from Zurich was unsealed, with more than $1.2 million in cash missing and never recovered. Like the recent Delta robbery, both of those large thefts were brainstormed as inside jobs by the airlines’ cargo workers.

The differences in risk and penalties for the Amsterdam and recent JFK robbery could not be more striking. The Amsterdam gang was free for 12 years before an anonymous tip surfaced, facilitating their arrests. To this day their haul of $43 million in diamonds has never been recovered. Of the four men that hijacked the armored car; the man said to be the brains of the operation died before being tried, two received 6-7 year sentences and one man was found not guilty. The pain may have been worth $43 million?

In the Delta JFK case, the robbery of an airline flight elevates the crime to federal grand larceny. The alleged thief will face up to 90 months in federal prison if convicted. His major miscalculation was that U.S. airports are now inundated with security cameras. From gate to runway to airline buildings, Delta and the port authority were able to view recordings of each step of the crime. For this story, Delta Airlines chose not to comment  whether its cargo procedures were followed during the September incident.

One thing is clear. Like a roaring mountain stream, a few boulders will not deter the flow of billions of dollars in currency and jewels zooming across the nation’s airways. And for frequent flyers, it is likely that a pile of treasure will be riding with you some day, tucked snugly underneath your feet in the cargo hold.  

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