Government eases security screening for pilots amid uproar

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 19, 2010 

WASHINGTON —Effective immediately, the nation’s air carrier pilots are able to bypass the aggressive security screening and manual pat-downs that have stirred growing opposition from the flying public.

The Transportation Security Administration announced Friday that uniformed pilots for U.S. carriers and those traveling on airline business have only to provide their airline identification and another form of ID to TSA officers at airport checkpoints. The officers will check the credentials against a crew member database that provides photos and other information to verify the pilots' employment status.

The move reverses a previous TSA policy that subjected pilots to full-body screening by X-ray and radio-wave scanners as part of a stepped-up effort to thwart terrorism.

A number of pilots’ organizations said the new measures were burdensome, unnecessary and a violation of the long-standing trust between pilots and security personnel. Pilots already have been through extensive FBI background checks, and the TSA has deputized thousands of them as federal flight deck officers. These deputized pilots are authorized to carry weapons and can use deadly force while on duty to protect the cockpit from a terrorist attack, according to the Air Line Pilots Association.

“Pilots are trusted partners who ensure the safety of millions of passengers flying every day,” said John Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration. “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.”

The policy change comes amid a growing furor over stepped-up passenger security measures, which were implemented recently without much warning.

Security officers subject passengers who refuse to go through the hundreds of advanced-imaging full-body scanners — which are in place now at dozens of major airports — to open-hand, full-body pat-downs. Passengers have complained that the machines provide security officers with revealing images of their naked bodies and may emit dangerous radiation.

Several lawsuits have been filed over the new policies, and other groups have called for a mass boycott of the machines and pat-downs the day before Thanksgiving, one of the busiest travel days of the year.

While the new security guidelines won’t help aggrieved passengers, they'll quiet the growing criticism from pilots.

“We view this as a very welcome policy change,” said Gregg Overman, a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the collective bargaining agent for American Airlines pilots.

“Establishing a secure system to positively identify and verify the employment status of uniformed pilots is a common-sense, risk-based approach that allows TSA to dedicate more resources to unknown threats,” said Capt. Paul Onorato, the president of the Coalition of Airline Pilots Associations.

The new system is modeled after a pilot program that's in place at airports in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Columbia, S.C. Flight deck crew members will still be subject to random screening and other security measures.

Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who safely landed his disabled aircraft in the Hudson River off New York City early last year and had earlier criticized the additional security measures for pilots, said he was heartened by the change.

“I am glad that the TSA is working with pilots as the trusted partners they are in this important security effort,” he said

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