Ask virtually anyone on the street “who is responsible for airline security,” and the answer will most likely be, “TSA.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple and could mean that airlines will have to pay more and take on more security responsibilities for their international flights.

While TSA sets forth and enforces the regulations, there are many players and many layers within the aviation security system, and it’s important to know who’s who and what’s what because it could make a difference in the security of the plane you’re on.

Recently, after the failed Christmas bombing, TSA dished out several security procedures to airlines and airports, such as passengers being required to remain seated during the last hour of flight. Just as quickly, they decided that the airlines and the pilot on board could make these types of security calls. Now, TSA says that extra screening is required in certain countries before passengers are allowed to board a U.S. registered aircraft, but the international community has been slow to respond (click link). Guess they didn’t get the memo that we are in charge.

Regardless, this has brought forth the question, who is really responsible for airline and airport security. If the pilot on a particular flight elected not to tell the passengers to remain in their seats and something bad happens during this time, is it now the airline’s fault? Should we blame the pilot and sue the airline? I’m not sure that’s what we want. The pilot-in-command (i.e. the Captain) has pretty much always had the authority as the In-Flight Security Coordinator to make decisions along these lines if he or she felt it was in the legitimate interest of the safety of the flight. Not sure about this authority??? Just try standing up to go the lav when the Fasten Seat Belt light is on.

Under the Transportation Security Regulations, Title 49 Part 1544.201 Acceptance and Screening of Individuals and Accessible Property, the airline is the final authority on whether a person boards their flight. The airline is required to show that the proper screening has taken place or that other measures were used to determine that those allowed on board have been properly screened through other measures.

Since the international community has been reluctant to jump on the latest TSA mandates, does this mean that the airlines may soon have to provide their own additional security staff and take additional measures? Maybe?

Back in the late 1960s, the airlines started their own security processes because they were getting hijacked a lot and that was just bad for business. Then, in 1973, Congress made it official that the airlines were responsible for providing screening but the FAA would provide oversight and set the standards. That system stayed in place through 9/11/01.

In 1996, the Gore Commission acknowledged that aviation was so important  to the United States that aviation security is a national issue, not just an airport or airline responsibility. It was partially based on that declaration that TSA was created and took over screening functions in the U.S. after 9/11. However, that’s about where everything stopped. Beyond that point, the airlines are still responsible for ensuring that people getting on board have been properly screened and airports are still responsible for another whole host of measures — all of this largely unfunded by the Federal government. While TSA does provide air marshals, if you look at what some other airlines do throughout the world, the airline themselves provides armed airline security officers to protect their flights. Since that costs a lot of money we decided to give guns to the pilots. Maybe we should give the flight attendants better security training and arm some of them – make them actual armed security officers, similar to the Armed Security Officer program in use for corporate aviation flights into Reagan National Airport. Bet you’d really think twice about violating the Fasten Seat Belt sign warning.

I’m not suggesting that airlines actually do this or take on more responsibility, such as screening functions at foreign airports or other measures. I’m also not saying those are bad ideas. What I am saying is that maybe it’s time to re-look at our national priorities with aviation security and see if the system is set up to actually protect the traveling public, or just set up to limit the government’s liability and provide the illusion of security.

Stay tuned on this one, it’s a thought in progress.

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