Bowing to pressure from airline pilot unions, the Transportation Security Administration announced today it is dropping requirements that pilots and other flight-deck crewmembers undergo screening by advanced full-body imaging machines or what the agency calls enhanced pat-downs.
Instead, according to a TSA announcement, eligible pilots will enter a secure area after presenting their airline identification and an additional form of identification to the TSA officers. The officers will then cross-reference their credentials against a “secure, real-time airline flight-deck crewmember database, which includes a picture and other information to verify the individual’s employment status,” the agency said.
Eligible pilots must work for a U.S. carrier, be traveling in uniform, and on airline business, said TSA, which added that "flight-deck crewmembers who utilize this program will also be subject to random screening and other layers of security."
“Pilots are trusted partners who ensure the safety of millions of passengers flying every day,” TSA Administrator John S. Pistole said. “Allowing these uniformed pilots, whose identity has been verified, to go through expedited screening at the checkpoint just makes for smart security and an efficient use of our resources.”
Sam Mayer, communications director at the Allied Pilots Association, said the agency revealed the changes to the APA, the largest independent pilots association with a membership of 11,500 American Airlines pilots, earlier this morning. A copy of the TSA news release was leaked to National Journal before the agency made its announcement.
“Pilots traveling in uniform on immediate business will see immediate modifications” to the screening process on the ground, Mayer said.
The TSA had “definitely want[ed] to get this resolved before the holiday travel season,” he said.
The APA, whose members have been concerned about the health risks of repeated radiation exposure, had advised its members not to go through the full-body imaging machines and to opt instead for an enhanced pat-down procedure by a TSA official of the same sex as the pilot, potentially causing congestion at airport checkpoints and delaying flights.
“Basically, TSA administrator [John] Pistole has agreed with us,” Mayer said, adding that Pistole admitted it was “stupid” to waste resources to screen a trusted group like pilots. Mayer described Pistole as saying, "Let’s build a database and get on with it.”
James Ray, a spokesman for U.S. Airline Pilots Association, said his union’s call to opt for pat-downs to protest the screening process had a direct impact on the outcome.
“Now you won’t have the log jams ... that could have taken place if every pilot and crewmember had requested a pat-down,” Ray said. “That could have caused flight delays and increased a need for TSA personnel."
“We’re very pleased that the TSA is making a decision based on common sense,” Ray added. Leadership of the group has worked very closely with the TSA over the last week to develop the new procedures, said Ray, who called it "a win-win situation.”
"It makes the system more efficient for pilots and allows the TSA to concentrate their personnel on protecting our nation’s passengers,” he said.
There has been no indication given to the unions so far about what the full range of modifications will be, said APA's Mayer, whose group is continuing to talk with TSA officials. “We’ll have to work with them [the TSA] over the next couple days to see what is going to be phased-in here, what exactly the details of the implementation process are. But it’s a huge step in the right direction."
The pilots unions have been requesting a special biometric identification system for crew members for almost 10 years, Mayer told National Journal earlier this week. He noted that the current system is both time consuming and insulting to such a highly-vetted group of people, physically in charge of flying the airplanes themselves.
Now, Mayer said today, his union has “the commitment for the biometric program that we are looking for.”
“We understand that’s not going to happen overnight,” he continued. “The hardware has to be bought and installed and the system has to be set up. We imagine that it’s going to take a few weeks to get all the hardware and software on board, testified verified and working."
Mayer added that he is “concerned” about the intermediate steps as the groups work out the exact details of the long-term solution, but that the airline management at American Airlines, along with executives at other airlines, have been working internally with their pilot union counterparts to resolve the situation.