A concealed gasoline container

Before he allegedly set fire to a Chicago-area basement facility controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), authorities say Brian Howard passed through a security checkpoint with a concealed gasoline container and had posted a message on Facebook saying goodbye to his family and indicating he intended to inflict harm on himself and others. “I am about to take out [the FAA center] and my life,” he wrote.

Luckily, the Friday blaze, which grounded hundreds of planes throughout the weekend and shut down O’Hare international airport, the nation’s busiest, did not result in deaths. Howard, 36, is currently recuperating in a local hospital and is charged with one count of destruction of aircraft or aircraft facilities.

The breach that enabled him to carry out his plan speaks to a continuing trend in the aviation industry that most security experts say is ripe for abuse: an over-reliance on third-party contractors whose workers are often paid low wages and are not screened properly, but who have easy access to some of the most vulnerable areas of the nation’s biggest airports.

“These people are not psychologically invested to the extent that government employees can be if they are managed appropriately. That’s why the security industry is so uneasy about contractors: The psychological investment issue and how poorly these people are screened certainly makes people uncomfortable,” said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence, and security studies at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.

For eight years Howard worked for Harris Corporation in Melbourne, Florida as a field technician, a role that provides “on-site software and hardware support for the FAA’s telecommunication network,” said spokesperson Jim Burke in an email. He would not comment further on the matter.

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