AFA complaints over cabin searches falling on deaf ears

 - May 15, 2008, 8:45 AM

Some two months after first airing concerns over what it called insufficient training of flight attendants for cabin security searches, the Association of Flight Attendants last month intensified its crusade to sway public opinion against six regional airlines it accused of skirting new security mandates. The AFA named Air Wisconsin, PSA, Piedmont, Allegheny, Atlantic Southeast and Atlantic Coast Airlines as the primary culprits. Another airline on the AFA’s original list–Seattle-based Horizon Air–has begun to address the union’s concerns, according to the AFA’s Dawn Deeks.

The controversy began after a number of flight attendants complained about the lack of time and direction given by their employers to conduct cabin searches mandated by the FAA after September 11. While major airlines use specially trained personnel to search cabins for weapons or other suspicious contraband, in the interest of cost efficiency regional airlines typically require their cabin crews to conduct the searches. The AFA wants those regional airlines to hire dedicated cabin searchers or at least provide special training and extra compensation for the extra time it thinks FAs need to conduct the searches.

On March 8 PSA flight attendants distributed leaflets to passengers in the main terminal at Pittsburgh International Airport in an effort to raise public awareness of the issue. The union planned more leafleting campaigns for Knoxville and Akron later in the month. The demonstrations continue because, according to the AFA, not only have the airlines failed to respond to their concerns, the FAA and the newly formed Transportation Security Agency (TSA) say they have not found sufficient evidence of violations to launch an official investigation.

TSA spokesperson Rebecca Trexler told AIN that while the FAA requires the airlines to provide “the appropriate training,” it leaves the allotment of extra time for the searches to the discretion of the individual airlines because of the wide range of airplane configurations involved. “We mandate the outcome, not the time it takes,” she said. “We have security agents out there all the time now. If searches are not done, then we make everybody leave the checkpoint and exit the plane for rescreening.” Trexler added that although she knows of “one or two” instances in which improper searches took place, she said that the FAA has not conducted a special investigation into the matter and that the agency addresses complaints individually.

Deeks said the FAA cites security interests for its policy of withholding from the union its specific guidelines for cabin searches. Although the FAA has issued standard procedures to the airlines, the carriers have not applied them uniformly, she added. “A big part of the problem is that there’s no process to follow in the event someone finds a specific substance,” said Deeks. “For example, if someone comes across a white powder, we have no guidelines for handling it.”

Another issue centers on the time it takes to thoroughly search all the possible hiding places in a cabin. Deeks said ground supervisors have in some cases pressured flight attendants to sign the FAA paperwork after only a cursory search simply to maintain on-time performance goals.

In such cases, the flight attendants find themselves in a “no-win” situation because they must choose between the wrath of their employers and the risk of FAA action for attesting to a false document. Deeks said that Midwest Express suspended one of its flight attendants for 45 days after she refused to attest to procedures she hadn’t fully performed. The flight attendant, whom AFA declined to identify, has taken the case to arbitration.

Debra Dahl, a flight attendant for Vandalia, Ohio-based PSA Airlines, estimates that a thorough security search of a 30-seat Dornier 328 cabin should take 30 min. Dahl told AIN that the 10 min the airline now allots simply does not give FAs enough time to perform the emergency equipment safety checks required before September 11 and the new cabin searches mandated as part of the FAA’s new security measures.

She also complained that the guidelines simply say to look for “anything out of the ordinary,” but do not elaborate on what procedure to follow after a flight attendant finds something suspicious. “I myself have not come across anything yet, but I know of cases where a flight attendant has found something and reported it, but then no one knew what to do next,” said Dahl. A US Airways Express spokesman declined to comment on the charges, citing airline policy against revealing sensitive security information. “PSA provides security training as part of its line training and recurrent training,” said the spokesman. “We do not discuss security.”

The AFA argues that the DOT Rapid Response Team on Aircraft Security, established after September 11, recommends that airlines should not assign cabin or flight crew to cabin searches. The airlines counter that they do not expect crews to conduct bomb searches, and that instruction given to the flight attendants as part of the FAA’s new security-training requirements includes specific guidelines on cabin searches.

“The flight attendants know their own aircraft cabins perhaps better than anyone and are uniquely qualified to notice anything unusual,” said an Atlantic Southeast Airlines spokesperson. “They’ve been fully trained on the appropriate security measures, and we don’t anticipate any need for further action.”