Bizav groups optimistic about TSA/DHS interface

 - January 8, 2008, 5:26 AM

Although the new Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is among the 22 separate government agencies that will become part of the new Department of Homeland Security, the TSA is expected to remain intact for at least two years.

The only difference is that the TSA will be answering to the Secretary of Homeland Security–expected to be former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge–instead of to Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. General aviation, which has been building bridges since retired Coast Guard Adm. James Loy was named acting head of the TSA in July, expects to be working with the same contacts for the foreseeable future.
The TSA was created under the Aviation Transportation and Safety Act, signed by President Bush in November 2001. By last January it had a total of 13 employees, and last February it took over civil aviation security and implemented “positive bag matching.”

Establishment of the new Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security represents the biggest reorganization of the federal government since the Defense Department was created in 1947. Along with the TSA, it will include such diverse agencies as the Coast Guard, Secret Service and Border Patrol.

Loy expects the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be up and running around March 1. With 45,000 people (this number includes airport security screeners) already on its staff, the TSA will be part of a broad-based component that will bring the major border security and transportation operations under one roof. It is already the largest, nearly equal in size to the FAA.

Ridge, currently director of the White House Office of Homeland Security and a Republican, is expected to win confirmation easily when the GOP reclaims control of the Senate this month. Bush has also said he will nominate Navy Secretary Gordon England to be Ridge’s deputy and former Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.) to be undersecretary of border and transportation security.

Av Groups Give Thumbs Up
The National Air Transportation Association said it is “encouraged” by the nomination of Hutchinson, currently head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to run the border and transportation security arm of DHS. NATA president Jim Coyne said the former congressman has been a “long-time friend” of NATA. NBAA too is supporting Hutchinson, calling him an excellent pick. “We’re confident that he and Admiral Loy will work well together,” said Pete West, NBAA senior v-p of government and public affairs.

In addition to the TSA, the Customs Service and the Coast Guard, Hutchinson’s purview will include the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the Federal Protective Service.

The DHS will include other functions such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the nuclear incident response unit, domestic emergency support teams, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and the National Domestic Preparedness Office, all designed to oversee disaster preparedness training and coordinate government response.

All told, the DHS will have more than 170,000 employees, most of whom are already on the federal government payroll, and an annual budget of some $40 billion. By way of contrast, the DOT’s annual budget is about $60 billion and the FAA’s is about $14 billion.

The White House estimated that it will be at least a year before the DHS is organized, given the fact that all of the agencies have to be assigned there within a year. “And just like the creation of any entity, there are going to be growing pains…it has to be anticipated in the creation of this department,” said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer. “There is no question there will be growing pains, wrinkles that have to be ironed out.”

Several TSA officials pointed out that under the legislation creating the Homeland Security Department, the TSA expects to remain largely autonomous for two years. Except, instead of working as part of the DOT, it will be a component of the DHS.

Loy a Favorite

In fact, Mineta is probably not unhappy to see transportation security shifted to someone else, even though his deputy undersecretary, Michael Jackson, said early last month, “Norm and I pass off responsibility like parents passing off their children to college.” And even FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said, “I get up every morning and say, ‘Thank you, Lord, for Jim Loy.’”

Loy, unlike his predecessor John Magaw, thus far has received generally good marks from the aviation industry. Whereas Magaw, a former head of the Secret Service, came from a law-enforcement background and was not familiar with transportation issues, Loy is.

The Coast Guard Loy oversaw has an extensive air wing and it deals with recreational boaters, who share pilots’ concerns about access and security regulations, although Loy said with self-deprecation, “I call myself a simple sailor in the midst of an aviation community.”

Loy seems much more open and approachable, and many in the industry have seen what they describe as positive change at the top of the TSA since he became the agency’s acting boss last summer. He was sworn in as head of the TSA in November after the Senate confirmed his nomination along with the passage of the Homeland Security legislation.

In September, Tom Blank, associate undersecretary for security regulation and policy at the TSA, promised at the NBAA Convention in Orlando, Fla., that the TSA is committed to working closely with the business aviation community to help thwart future terror threats against general aviation through common-sense approaches to improving security. That helped assuage some fears that business aviation could be irreparably damaged by new and onerous restrictions.

“I’m here today to invite the general aviation community to the TSA table,” said Blank. “The TSA cannot succeed without the support of chief stakeholders such as the NBAA and others. One of the key themes I want to convey today is that the line of communication between the TSA and general aviation is open. You have a voice at the TSA.”

Sore Topic
While the TSA must take adequate steps to protect the flying public, Blank said in Orlando that his agency did not want unfairly to deny anyone access to airspace or airports–a sore topic for the scores of operators who have been denied access to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) since 9/11.

However, despite the good intentions of the TSA, decisions such as reopening DCA are sometimes out of its jurisdiction, overridden by concerns of the National Security Council and other federal defense and law-enforcement agencies. Mineta said the federal government was poised to begin reinstating GA operations at DCA last May, when a heightened security alert shelved the plan. Officials conceded there was little hope of reviving the plan in the foreseeable future.

Otherwise, the TSA has been making inroads on Blank’s promise to work closely with the business aviation community specifically, as well as with all of GA. An airport-watch program to report suspicious activity, similar to a harbor watch that Loy instituted when he ran the Coast Guard, became operational early last month. The TSA is funding and operating the 24/7 anti-terrorism hotline, while AOPA has created a training video, posters and pamphlets that provide examples of suspicious activities, outline steps aviators can take to help law-enforcement organizations and offer precautions operators can take to help improve airport security.

The TSA has met with the General Aviation Coalition, and early this month Pam Hamilton, acting manager of the general aviation policy division of the TSA, revealed that a test of what NBAA is now calling its security access protocol will be conducted by the TSA at Teterboro (N.J.) Airport this spring.

Although access to DCA doesn’t appear to be on the horizon, the TSA remains interested in what began as a proposal for qualified GA operators to secure authorization to use National Airport. Originally called a security letter of authorization (SLOA), it later became the Transportation Security Administration Access Protocol (TSAAP), which would allow general aviation operators airline-like access to the NAS in the event of another national security incident.

Before the passage of the law creating the Department of Homeland Security, West said a number of members of Congress emphasized that–in terms of the economic factors associated with aviation, and specifically business aviation and all of the factors supporting it–they were confident the DHS would consider the economic factors and the pure security initiatives to deal with direct terrorist threats.