At least 48 people were arrested Wednesday on charges of conspiracy, drug smuggling and weapons offenses in what is believed to be the largest number of drug arrests involving a U.S. airline. Many face life in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors said workers hid drugs in food cars, garbage bags and carry-on luggage, gaining easy access to secure areas by flashing their ID badges. Some of the drugs included bogus cocaine and heroin supplied by agents. Evidence indicates some of the contraband was smuggled aboard in airline food trays, reports CBS Station WFOR-TV in Miami.
Even on their days off, uniformed ramp workers were allowed to drive baggage vehicles to arriving international flights and unload a single bag containing contraband without being challenged, authorities said.
"What we need is much closer scrutiny, much closer monitoring on the part of the airlines of their employees," said U.S. Customs Service Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
No one in management was known to have been arrested, reports CBS News Correspondent Eric Engberg. Also, no American pilots or flight attendants were indicted. American, the nation's No. 2 airline, said it has cooperated with investigators.
"This is a company with zero tolerance for illegal drugs," said Larry Wansley, American's managing director of security.
The company blamed the problem on a "small group of employees," but prosecutors disagreed.
"This is not a case of one or two rogues," U.S. Attorney Thomas Scott said. "I think that alone speaks mouthfuls."
The arrests resulted from two sting operations. One began after a pilot complained in April 1998 that his coffee tasted weak. Investigators discovered 15 pounds of heroin stashed in coffee packs aboard an American plane.
Operation Ramp Rats started in 1997 after agents confirmed suspicions of widespread drug smuggling from Miami to other U.S. cities.
The drugs were put aboard American Airlines flights in Colombia and Central America, flown to Miami, and then went on to Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore and Cleveland, investigators said. The defendants also allegedly smuggled disabled guns and hand grenades that undercover agents had given them.
"Because it was an undercover operation, it's hard to judge, but they were making lots of money doing this, more than their salaries," said Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Brent Eaton.
Some 58 people were named in federal indictments, reports CBS News Correspondent Byron Pitts. The suspects included 13 people employed by LSG/Sky Chefs and 38 employed by or in some way connected to American Airlines.
Also indited were an Immigration and Naturalization Service agent, an inspector with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a Broward County sheriff's deputy who worked part-time as a baggage handler.
John Magaw, head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, explained to CBS This Morning Co-Anchor Mark McEwen that during the sting, though agents arranged for weapons such as hand grenades to be smuggled onboard planes, passengers' safety was not compromised.
"The passengers were never in dangerÂ… Agents switched [the bag containing the device] with the bag that went on board. So the one that went on board weighed the same, felt the same, but did not have either this explosive device, which would have been obviously fatal [or] this firearm, along with drugs," Magaw said.
Separately, eight people - including seven current or former baggage handlers and ramp agents for American - were named in a complaint in New York in a similar case.
Prosecutors estimate that since 1996, the defendants used their employee privileges on hundreds of trips from Miami to smuggle 10,000 pounds of drugs into the New York area.
As CBS News first reported two years ago, this undercover operation started when employees at another airline were arrested for smuggling ten tons of cocaine into the U.S. through Puerto Rico.
Also, officials in Colombia identified American as the airline used by 10 Colombians charged over the weekend with smuggling more than 1,000 pounds of heroin to Miami.