A ring of corrupt airline employees exploited weaknesses in security procedures to help a New York drug ring smuggle heroin and cocaine from the Dominican Republic via John F. Kennedy Airport, federal authorities charged.
At least 18 people have been charged so far in the plot, including seven employees at Delta Air Lines, one at American Airlines, and two others who worked at JFK.
Several were arrested on Tuesday in a roundup that followed a two-year probe by US customs agents.
Prosecutors said the group concealed drugs in luggage on jets traveling from the Dominican Republic, then retrieved the bags at JFK before they could be inspected by customs agents.
The suspects include cargo and baggage handlers, an employee of a global courier service and a "lookout" for the group who had access to JFK's control tower through her job with Aramark, a cleaning, maintenance and food service company.
A US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent said in a court filing that, in some cases, workers whose jobs gave them "virtually unfettered and unsupervised" access to arriving flights simply turned up, removed the drug-filled bags from the jet's cargo hold, and walked off with them while taking care to avoid security cameras.
The agency said it began investigating in 2005 after a suitcase containing cocaine and heroin was seized at JFK after arriving on a Delta flight. Agents built the case by tapping the phones of several suspects, including some who attracted attention when they turned up to unload bags on shifts when they were not scheduled to work.
Agents also intercepted the shipments of more than 100 pounds (45kg) of cocaine, 55 pounds (25kg) of heroin and 6.6 pounds (3kg) of the drug ecstasy.
A Delta spokeswoman, Chris Kelly, said the airline has been cooperating with the probe for several months.