The March arrest of two Comair employees and three accomplices for smuggling drugs and guns onto a Delta Air Lines flight from Orlando to San Juan, Puerto Rico understandably raised a lot of questions from the traveling public and, as expected, drew a strong reaction from the Transportation Security Administration. Since then the TSA has launched a series of what it called “surge operations” involving spot checks of employees and airliners across the country. Now, Congressional support for a bill sponsored by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) to mandate full screening of all airline employees has gained momentum.
Opponents argue that more screening simply isn’t necessary because employees submit to FBI background checks during the hiring process. Furthermore, they say, the logistics involved would simply prove infeasible because employees must exit and enter sterile areas all day long. Employees conceivably could have to wait hours in line to get cleared to go to work. Screeners would have to check mechanics’ tool boxes every time they pass through a checkpoint. And what does a screener do with a legitimate tool that could double as a weapon?
The fact remains, however, as long as airline employees continue to find ways to smuggle contraband aboard airplanes, the public will question how the TSA can guarantee that one of them won’t one day plant a bomb. That dilemma places the airline industry in a delicate position. How does the RAA, for example, quietly advance the interests of its members–who clearly need to limit the time and cost burden inherent in any level of employee screening–without appearing less than sympathetic to the security concerns of their passengers?
“They’re understandably concerned, but the question is how far you go and what kind of resources are you willing to deploy to address a particular risk,” said RAA vice president of technical services Dave Lotterer. “There has to be some finite process, some kind of risk management process in place, and right now we’re trying to promote that type of process.”
Lotterer belongs to an industry advocacy group led by Boeing dedicated to the so-called risk management analysis process (RMAP), a computer-based model for developing security procedures based on objective risk assessment. Established in February last year, the committee reports to the Department of Homeland Security and the TSA.
“We’re making progress, so I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture,” said Lotterer. In fact, industry has succeeded in convincing the TSA that it doesn’t need to screen pilots a second time, for example, once they’ve finished a shift and, in effect, become a passenger while deadheading. “I don’t want to get into specific situations, but we were able to get them to back off from the stringent situations that tie up our personnel in terms of turnaround times.”
TSA airline sector managers David Bernier and Karen Glasgow have agreed to appear at Lotterer’s safety and security directors’ conference at the convention to impress upon the RAA members the agency’s sensitivity to their concerns, particularly about inconsistent enforcement at the local level. For example, some field security inspectors have begun to ask pilots to open panels during preflight checks they never before had to open. The RAA has asked TSA headquarters in Washington to issue standard guidance related to preflights.
“The FAA has ACs and handbook bulletins that describe the rules, but TSA rules have very little guidance, so you will have local inspectors go to the extreme and we have had a couple of them do that,” said Lotterer. “One carrier is facing fines of well over $200,000 for trivial stuff.”
Meanwhile, the line between so-called homeland security and law enforcement functions continues to blur as Congress points to instances such as the drug and gun smuggling case in Florida as a basis for expanding the TSA’s screening responsibilities.
“If the TSA were to make [background and security checks] more stringent and so forth, I don’t think we would object,” said Lotterer. “The question becomes what activities they want to add on even though they do those things…what kind of searches do you do with respect to the tools of mechanics and so forth? They have to show their [identification] badge, but there isn’t a search of equipment, because…if you do that sort of thing for the mechanics, then you have to do it for the catering people, all of the equipment, the cleaning people, all of that sort of activity you would have to do to be consistent.”