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TSA Chief Says Airline Pilots to Get Faster Screening

John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
John Pistole, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Nov. 19 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. airline pilots will be exempted from physical checks at airport security checkpoints so federal screeners can better focus on passengers, the Transportation Security Administration chief said.

Pilots starting next year will be able to move through checkpoints with proof of identity, John Pistole, who leads the agency, said in an interview today at Bloomberg’s office in Washington. He said he is in talks with flight attendants about similar exemptions.

“This one seemed to jump out as a common-sense issue,” Pistole said. “Why don’t we trust pilots who are literally in charge of the aircraft?”

The plan, which Pistole said will be rolled out in next year’s first quarter, may help ease checkpoint congestion, which has become a concern as consumers prepare to travel for next week’s Thanksgiving holiday in the U.S.

Pilots have sought faster checks for years and intensified efforts in recent weeks after the agency had said they would be subject to body scans and pat-downs as part of new security procedures at airports.

John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said in an interview that he has asked his 53,000 members if they would be willing to front the costs to get the program implemented and then work to get reimbursed by the government or carriers. The program will cost $10 million a year, he said.

Removing an Irritant

Today’s announcement is “more than just good news. This is a sign that the administration has recognized that maybe one-size screening for everyone is not the way to go,” said Prater, whose crew union is the world’s largest.

“It removes one of the irritants for the flight crews and the passengers -- none of us likes cutting to the front of the line,” Prater said.

The Association of Professional Flight Attendants said it is “extremely disappointed” that the measures weren’t implemented for its members at the same time. The union, which represents attendants at AMR Corp.’s American Airlines, said it has been working with the carrier’s security department. The union and the airline have proposed a solution to the TSA, said Jeff Pharr, a spokesman for the union.

Flight Attendant Screenings

“APFA will not stop until all crewmembers are included,” the association said in a statement.

The Air Transport Association, the Washington-based trade group for large U.S. carriers, doesn’t support or oppose the plan, said David Castelveter, a spokesman.

“That’s a TSA decision that they are working on with the unions,” he said. Association members include Southwest Airlines Co. and US Airways Group Inc.

Pistole ordered the more-thorough checkpoint procedures nationwide this month. He says they are necessary to ensure that all passengers are screened and to avoid an attack such as the one on Christmas last year. A Nigerian man with explosives hidden in his underpants tried to blow up a jet as it landed in Detroit.

Passengers and groups such as civil liberties organization Electronic Privacy Information Center and are advocating a National Opt Out Day on Nov. 24 to protest the new procedures.

Pistole and executives at his agency have been meeting with the unions and airlines in recent weeks in anticipation of today’s announcement exempting them from the new checks.

‘Potential Terrorists’

With the change, “we save limited resources in terms of who we are physically screening,” Pistole said in the interview. The approach will “allow us to pay more attention to those potential terrorists.”

Only pilots in uniform traveling on airline business can use the expedited screening, the agency said in a statement. They initially would not face biometric checks. Pilots would use airline-issued passes and have identities confirmed by a computer system yet to be chosen, Pistole said.

Pistole is being “realistic” in making the change, said Douglas R. Laird, a former Northwest Airlines security chief and president of Laird & Associates Inc., a consulting firm in Reno, Nevada. “Pilots are not the threat.”

Verifying a pilot’s identity at checkpoints with a computer photograph is as effective as a biometric identification, Laird said. “I certainly don’t see a problem with it,” he said.

The security agency and largest pilots’ union have jointly tested a similar program at airports in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Columbia, South Carolina, over the past two years.

Nationwide Standard

The airlines and pilots still need to agree on which software system they will use, with the security agency insisting it be set to the same standard nationwide, Pistole said. “There’s a number of details we’re still working through, in terms of a small cost that would be involved,” he said.

All of the program’s costs will be in computer and Internet-related charges, said Prater of the Air Line Pilots Association. Screeners will check pilot identifications, so there are no additional labor costs, he said.

“The pilot unions believe it should either be government funded as part of security procedures or employers should defray the expenses,” he said.

Pilots will see “immediate modifications” in their checkpoint screening while the program is being phased in, according to the TSA statement, which didn’t describe those changes.

“We look forward to implementing a workable system for pilots,” said Sam Mayer, an American Airlines crew member and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents about 9,600 union members at American Airlines. “We’re happy that they are moving,” he said of the security agency.

To contact the reporter for this story: John Hughes in Washington

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernie Kohn at

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