Flying This Summer? Here’s A Quick Look At How The TSA And FBI Keep You Safe

June 25, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Since the start of this year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received around 3,100 reports of unruly behavior by passengers, including about 2,350 reports of passengers refusing to comply with the federal mask mandate. In January, the FAA issued an edict directing a strict, zero-tolerance policy for unruly and dangerous behavior from passengers. It said that there had been a disturbing increase in instances of airline passengers disrupting flights with threatening or violent behavior. Those incidents not only stemmed from passenger refusals to wear masks, but also from the violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, it said.

The FAA has historically handled unruly passengers using a variety of methods ranging from warnings and counseling to civil penalties. Under its new zero-tolerance policy, which it had said would be effective until March 30, the FAA said that going forward it wouldn’t address such cases with warnings or counseling. Instead, it will pursue legal action against any passenger that assaults, threatens, intimidates, or interferes with airline crew. In a normal year, the FAA has identified a violation of federal rules and taken enforcement action in as many as 150 cases. But this year, of the roughly 3,100 cases reported, it has so far identified potential violations of federal rules in 465 cases. Enforcement action has been initiated in 57 of those, CNN reported last week.

In most cases, unruly passengers have luckily not turned out to be individuals who are suspected of engaging in terror activities. Of course, even so, these incidents do disrupt flights and end up being public safety risks. For instance, one passenger reportedly “tried to open the cockpit door, repeatedly refused to comply with crew members’ instructions, and physically assaulted a flight attendant by striking him in the face and pushing him to the floor,” the CNN article says, citing the FAA. Even though flight attendants and another flyer restrained that unruly passenger, he “freed himself from one of the handcuffs and struck the flight attendant in the face a second time.”

“We are hearing from flight attendants who are saying I’m concerned about going to work now,” Sara Nelson of the Association of Flight Attendants labor union told CNN. To be sure, any kind of disruption on a flight could very quickly escalate and become a matter of public safety and security. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), which functions in tandem with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to handle all travel-related security, has even said it will resume self-defense training for crew members of flights in early July. This is in direct response to the spike in the number of unruly passenger incidents on flights. The TSA pointed to two recent incidents where passengers assaulted Transportation Security Officers, or TSOs, during the screening process.

With Covid-19 restrictions easing, and travel getting back to normal, the number of passengers flying is only bound to increase. But as crowds increase in public spaces, so do threats to public safety that many-a-time are prevented or dealt with quietly by law enforcement agencies. For instance, there’s a correlation between the number of people that are out in the warmer months of the year and the habitual summer spike in crime in the U.S. Similarly, just because much of the world was closed to travel during 2020, it doesn’t mean terror groups were not active, as a recent Europol report showed.

We thought it was only apt in this context to give you a quick overview of the kind of screening measures employed in the United States to prevent threats to aviation security. Of all the agencies, it is the TSA that manages the day-to-day security operations on the ground, in tandem with the FBI when it comes to identifying potential terror incidents. So, in today’s piece, we take a brief look at the security measures that the TSA and the FBI handle when it comes to aviation.

The TSA’s Screening Measures

The single biggest event that had the most profound impact on aviation safety in the U.S. came in 2001, of course. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, for the first time in U.S. aviation history, the FAA put a ground stop on all traffic. “In the overnight hours of September 11, members of FAA’s Flight Standards Service developed an initial lead identifying the names of potential hijackers and provided those names to the FBI. The tragic events of this day radically changed the FAA,” it says on its website.

On November 19, 2001, then-president George W. Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, which among other provisions, established a new agency responsible for aviation security — the TSA, within the Department of Transportation (DOT). The FAA remained responsible for aviation security until Feb. 13, 2002, when the TSA took over those responsibilities. But the FAA is still accountable for certain aspects of aviation safety within the DOT. Read our piece from April on the FAA’s responsibilities and how the agency conducts background checks within its own systems to prevent any possible internal threats here.

The TSA’s security measures begin long before passengers even arrive at the airport. It works closely with the intelligence and law enforcement communities to share information. Additional security measures are in place from the time a passenger gets to the airport until they reach their destination. As part of its security process, everything gets screened, from carry-on and checked-in baggage to passengers. (We won’t go into detail about that today, but you can read what the TSA says on each of those here.) The screening processes are meant to prevent prohibited items and other threats to transportation security from entering the airport. Then, of course, there’s also the help that the TSA solicits from the public at large when screening goods and monitoring suspicious activity at airports. It encourages the public to report unattended bags or packages; individuals in possession of a threatening item; persons trying to enter a restricted area; or similar suspicious activities at airports, train stations, bus stops, and ports as part of the DHS’ If You See Something, Say Something program.

Terror Screening Program & The No Fly List

This is where the FBI and the aviation industry’s No Fly List come in. The No Fly List is a small subset of the government’s Terrorist Screening Database, also called the “terrorist watchlist,” that contains the identity information of known or suspected terrorists. This database is maintained by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center. The TSA is among the government agencies that screen individuals using information from the Terrorist Screening Database. The TSA implements the No Fly List through its Secure Flight program. Individuals on the No Fly List are prevented from boarding an aircraft when flying within, to, from, and over the United States.

The FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center was also a result of the 9/11 attacks. It was created in 2003 to fulfill the then government’s mandate that federal executive departments and agencies share terrorism information with those in the counterterrorism community responsible for protecting the homeland. The watchlist is a single database that contains sensitive national security and law enforcement information concerning the identities of those who are known or reasonably suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. The Terrorist Screening Center uses the watchlist to support front-line screening agencies in positively identifying known or suspected terrorists who are attempting to obtain visas, enter the country, board an aircraft, or engage in other activities.