U.S. Rep. Richard Hudson of North Carolina is one of several politicians who want to halt the Obama administration’s plan to allow regular flights to Havana until better security measures have been put in place.
Lawmakers say U.S. authorities have failed to assure them that the island nation’s José Martí International Airport has the body scanners and explosive detection systems necessary to protect U.S. citizens from becoming victims of terror attacks. Hudson, R-Concord, and House Homeland Transportation Security Subcommittee Chairman John Katko, R-N.Y., said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx on Thursday that they were concerned about inadequate security in a country that “has been a safe haven for terrorists.”
“(We) still cannot verify if Cuba has the adequate body scanners and explosive detection systems in place,” says the letter to Foxx, Charlotte’s former mayor. “We additionally are unable to determine whether they have the technology to screen for fraudulent passports and identification, whether or how Cuban aviation workers are screened and if United States federal air marshals will be allowed to fly missions to Cuba on commercial flights.”
This is the fifth letter lawmakers have sent to the Obama administration within the past three months. Katko has sent the others to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson and Transportation Security Administration Administrator Peter Neffenger. Johnson assured House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, in a response letter June 30 that the TSA would monitor airport operations closely to ensure that flights to and from Cuba meet international security standards.
(We) still cannot verify if Cuba has the adequate body scanners and explosive detection systems in place.
Letter to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx
Congressional concern about potential security lapses comes as the Transportation Department has awarded 20 daily nonstop routes between the U.S. and Cuba to American Airlines and several other airlines. Hudson told McClatchy his security concerns had led him to set up a meeting with an American Airlines representative to address the possibility that passengers who fly to Cuba could be putting their lives in danger. Charlotte, where American Airlines operates its second-largest hub, was one of 10 cities tentatively selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation to receive nonstop routes to Havana.
“I care very deeply about American Airlines being very successful, a very critical economic driver for Charlotte and our region,” he said. “ . . . But my take on it is: If they have a plane and it gets a bomb on it and it blows up, that’s going to have a much bigger impact on their economic viability than maybe having to refund some tickets.”
American Airlines already sends public charter flights to some of the country’s airports.
“The bottom line is that we wouldn’t fly to any airport that didn’t meet our security standard or that hasn’t been approved by TSA, frankly, whether the service is scheduled or chartered, and today we, of course, operate charter services to Cuba,” an American Airlines spokesman said, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The addition of commercial flights to Cuba is one of the steps President Barack Obama has taken to loosen the U.S. trade embargo on the island nation since Dec. 17, 2014. Lawmakers became alarmed after a TSA official revealed security issues during a private, informal meeting in early March but then declined to discuss those issues during a public congressional hearing in May, Hudson said.
TSA officials said authorities were working toward completing an arrangement with the Cuban government to deploy federal air marshals on flights between the United States and Cuba. Even then, the initial arrangement between the countries will allow for those Federal Air Marshals to be present only on public charter flights.
Lawmakers became increasingly frustrated with the inability of officials to answer questions during a formal congressional hearing and eventually decided to seek answers by going to Cuba to examine security at the country’s airports firsthand. But Cuba denied their visa applications.
Franco Ordoñez contributed to this article.